IMDB #200 Brief Encounter

In a turn of events shocking to no one, there are no Adrian Lyne movies on the countdown- not even Flashdance. But if you saw his 2002 film Unfaithful and thought to yourself "this would be great without all the sex and violence," then 1945's Brief Encounter might just be the film for you. Let's get British and reserved for number 200.

The Key Players:

You might say that the full title of today's entry is Noël Coward's Brief Encounter, as he wrote the play upon which it was based, adapted it, and produced the film ("Produced by Noël Coward" even comes after the director credit). An accomplished British author, director, producer, songwriter, and even actor (including a key role in the original The Italian Job), he's the type of artist that has busts made of his head in places, and is allowed to have an umlaut for no real reason.

Considering this is a David Lean film, I was surprised to find the running time under an hour and a half. All of the epic, Oscar-type pictures he's known for (The Bridge On The River Kwai, Lawrence Of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage To India) are about three hours on average.

Our star is Celia Johnson, who had worked with Lean and Coward in smaller roles on the British Proganda film In Which We Serve, had a long and illustrious stage career that's mostly been forgotten about. That's the theatre for ya. In support is Trevor Howard (The Third Man).

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The Story:

Told in flashback, Brief Encounter is the simple story of housewife Johnson, who meets a married doctor (Howard) on one of her weekly trips into the city to buy groceries and see a movie.

It begins innocously as he helps get a piece of grit out of her eye. A week later she shares her cafe table with him since there's nowhere else to sit, and he joins her at the cinema.

Somehow the next week it's full-on love, with all the wracked guilt and nervous run-ins with friends that you might expect. Eventually, Johnson finds herself on the brink of physical as well as emotional infidelity (her husband remains cheerfully oblivious)- will she join Howard for a night in a city apartment, or catch the last train home?

The Artistry:

Since it's set in winter, Brief Encounter sees it fit to be darkly lit and noir-ish, a mood fit for its relatively turbulent subject matter. Coward softens the implications of the play slightly- on stage it's left ambiguous whether the love is consummated, but the owner of the apartment (Howard's colleague) returns to interrupt them in the film.

Given the context, I wonder what British audiences thought Brief Encounter was trying to tell them in 1945- did the doctor represent those American GI's with idle time in the isle while everyone's husband was away? Lean and Coward paint a remarkably chaste portrait of love and sacrifice following years of cornball propaganda films, and seem to drive home the message that duty comes before happiness.

Or maybe we're meant to take it as a straight-up tragedy. Who can say? Since the film begins with the lovers' final farewell, we never hold out hope, and it lends a depressing air to even the flirty first moments.

Johnson manages a melodramtic voice-over script rather well, and I can see why her performance was notable enough to cross the Atlantic. At a brisk 86 minutes, no one else has much time to stick in the memory, though.


Any spoilers were really already mentioned, I guess. They never make love, and he moves to Africa with his family to spare them both further longing.

Johnson's husband breaks her out of her flashback-filled reverie at the very end, and in a far too on-the-nose way says "Thank you for coming back to me."


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I guess I was rather unimpressed, on the whole. Maybe the novelty of the subject is important in context- last week's The African Queen drew fire from censors even years later for having two adults cohabitate on a boat when they weren't even married, let alone married to other people.

The Legacy:

There's Johnson's Oscar nomination, and a split of the 1946 Palme d'Or at Cannes. Brief Encounter has also been adapted into a radio play a few different times.

It was also remade in 1974 with Richard Burton and Sophia Loren- it aired on tv as part of the Hallmark Hall Of Fame series.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

My favorite moment: when they see a trailer for a fictional film called "Flames Of Passion." EPOCH-MAKING!!!

Leftover Thoughts:

-This week in pretentious film writing: this article claims the use of a Rachmaninoff piece moves the film along in "an almost Proustian manner." Good to know.

Coming Up...

199. Stalag 17

198. Kill Bill Vol. 2

197. Shadow of a Doubt

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