Oscar Wilde once said that life without love was “like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead”. Effectively, it’s considered an existence without essence. And even in our ever-changing society, much storytelling is still built on the fabled notion that destiny culminates in you finding your happily ever after.
Perhaps it’s fitting, however, that the single-greatest tale of unrequited love to be projected on the screen concerns the relationship between two individuals who have already found their romantic fortune. Innately British in its repressed and understated approach, director David Lean’s Brief Encounter – originally adapted from Noël Coward’s classic stage play ‘Still Life’, and now re-released by the BFI to mark the film’s 70th anniversary – stands with straight back and stiff upper lip, as an encapsulating expression of the electrical power and emphatic pain that comes from finding your soul mate, and discovering it’s not the person you thought it to be.There’s a genius in Lean’s intricately restrained approach to the material. The opening title shot of a steam train sprinting through Milford Junction railway station has an almost noir-esque aesthetic. It’s strange, shadowy, and easily exciting. But contrastingly, the picture is pervaded, as indeed the whole piece is, with Eileen Joyce’s rich recital of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2; a flurry of orchestral splendour that’s infused with the devastating longing intrinsic to the tale about to be told.
Cut to the interior of a tearoom, where we see the prickly proprietress Myrtle (Joyce Carey) engage in coquettish conversation with stationmaster Albert (Stanley Holloway), a fast and flamboyant dialogue inherent to Coward’s writing style that’s so involving you don’t initially notice the camera panning over to another couple sitting in the corner. Seconds later though, we find ourselves seated at the table with them at the moment in which they are interrupted by a third party (Everley Gregg’s Dolly Messiter). We haven’t been privy to the pair’s previous exchange, but the look of loathing in the face of the male, Alec (Trevor Howard), and the agony glimpsed in the eyes of the female, Laura (Celia Johnson), says it all.
It’s not yet known, but as watch Alec walk out of the café, briefly pausing to give Laura’s shoulder a sympathetic squeeze, what we witness is the crestfallen culmination of a complex affair of the heart. And, after following Laura back home to the bosom of her affable husband Fred (Cyril Raymond), as the tragic tones of Rachmaninoff begin to resurge, we are told, via a shattering inner-voiceover, of the poignant reality surrounding their fleeting romance.
Trevor Howard brings a gentlemanly charm to the role of Alec that’s as attractive to us as it is alluring to Laura. From the start, however, the film belongs to Celia Johnson, whose emotionally pulverising performance captures the guilt and grief of someone struggling to comprehend the concept of being attracted to another man, in a time when social constraints dictated that such feelings should be suppressed. Early meetings between Laura and Alec have a natural innocence to them. But, as the spark of chemistry becomes clear, a deep-rooted desire for each other slowly surfaces, and the plight of their ensuing passion is personified most purely in Johnson’s sorrowful silences and melancholic monologues.
Since its release in 1945, Brief Encounter has suffered its fair share of ridicule, many accusing it of being stranded by both class and time. Helped by the tender touch of Lean’s direction, and Coward’s characteristic ability to compound honest and heart-breaking observations with his well-observed wit though, it’s a film that transcends all criticism; the layers of ambiguity in the plot lingering long in your mind, its introspection of infidelity as thematically timely now as it was then. It may not have a fairytale ending, but that makes it no less enchanting.
Brief Encounter is playing in cinemas across the UK as part of the BFI’s Love Season. For more details and to find your nearest screening, click here.