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Monday, April 23, 2018

Brief Encounter

Before David Lean started making epic movies, he made much smaller ones, including several with Noel Coward. One of them is Brief Encounter, from 1945, which is based on Coward's one act play. In a recent poll, it was declared the second-best British film ever, after The Third Man.

The story is deceptively simple. A seemingly happy housewife meets a seemingly happy doctor by chance at a railway station. They bump into each other again and spend an afternoon together. Before long they realize they are in love with each other. Given the morals of the time, it's inconceivable that they should act on their emotions, but it puts them to the test, especially her.

The film is told from the point of view of the woman, played by Celia Johnson. She's just ended it with Trevor Howard, the kindly doctor, and is sharing an evening at home with her husband (he does a crossword puzzle, still in his jacket and tie, and she listens to Rachmaninoff on the radio). In her head she confesses the whole thing, which we see in flashback.

Brief Encounter is filmed in moody black and white by Robert Krasker, and there are many evocative shots of steam trains going in and out of the station. Much of the film takes place there, and it's almost like a character. A comic subplot has the station master (Stanley Holloway, who would later play Alfred P. Dolittle) trying to win the heart of the woman minding the tea and biscuit sales. Lean has his fun when Howard and Johnson kiss and he cuts to a train speeding down the tracks (at least it doesn't go into a tunnel).

Since it's 1945, the pair do not consummate their longing. I'm sure if it was made today they would. Instead there is a great scene in which Howard, who is staying in a friend's apartment, invites Johnson over. She is on the train home when she dashes off and joins him, but the friend arrives home early. She scoots out the back entrance but leaves her scarf, so the friend deduces everything. Howard is embarrassed by the tawdriness of it all, even though nothing happened. He asks his friend if he's angry. "I"m not angry. I'm just disappointed."

Both actors are good but Johnson steals the show. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role. She has big wide eyes and a delicate frame, and the scenes in which gusts of air blow by from the trains makes her look like she's about to take off in flight. Her face is so revealing, even when she is not speaking.

Brief Encounter is truly a great film.

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