#258 Brief Encounter

(1946, David Lean)
“I’ve fallen in love…I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”

Bonus review this week! Yes, because today is Valentine’s Day, I’m doing a special romantic-themed review. Last year I went with an 80s romantic comedy, and this year I decided to go a little further back in time and review old British classic Brief Encounter, a romance about two people who have a…well, brief encounter and fall in love. Awwwww.

Problem is, both Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) are already married, and not to each other, which kind of throws a spanner in the works a little. Cue a turbulent affair and a tornado of feelings and emotions. So, not exactly the happiest romance movie ever then.

The entire movie is told through Laura’s retrospective inner monologue, which serves to keep the film moving and highlight the turbulent emotions going through her mind throughout the affair. This was sometimes a useful method and other times not so useful. While mostly it was a great way of giving backstory and moving the plot along in an easy-to-follow way, there were times when it felt like the movie was falling victim to our old enemy – telling and not showing.

The commentary also has a tendency to slip into the inane at times. On two occasions we’re informed that Laura bought a book from Boots, which is all very nice, but it’s irrelevant and comes across as awkwardly-placed product placement for a shop that no longer sells books as part of its product range. It’s also like listening to a rambling aunt failing to realise that no one cares what she bought and everyone just wants her to get on with it.

The movie is also victim to another one of SvTM’s cardinal sins – incredibly stiff British acting. This is in fact another reason why the narration is valuable, since it’s the primary method we have to know how Laura is feeling. Without her telling us the myriad emotions buzzing around her head, it would have been hard to fathom this under the ultra-polite exterior that plagues so many pre-1990 British movies.

In fact, this is the movie’s primary issue. For a movie that revolves heavily around a turbulent affair and the complicated emotions it brings, the BBC English and over-the-top manners kind of dull the emotions somewhat. When one of their early conversations in their affair features the line “is tea bad for one?” it comes across as more of a polite audience with the Queen instead of a whirlwind romance.

And yet, paradoxically, the movie is incredibly melodramatic. Barely anything seems to happen in this relationship beyond a few cups of tea in cafes and the occasional outing to the countryside, and yet this is supposed to be the most wonderful time the two have ever had. Laura’s ultimate reaction to seeing Alec for the last time is also unexpectedly dark and slightly over-the-top. Perhaps it’s a side effect of the stiff upper lip problem that the movie comes across this way, and a little less stiffness would have brought the emotional turmoil to the front more, but it’s hard to get past at times.

That said, there is chemistry between the two leads under the stiffness. The two do seem to genuinely connect, and it’s certainly easy to see why they’d fall for each other. It’s also notable that Alec is certainly more interesting than Laura’s nice but intolerably dull husband (the height of his day appears to be the Times crossword), so there’s that too.

The movie also seems to recognise its own stiffness with a line that at one point suggested the British could perhaps learn to stop being so withdrawn around one another. This line alone seemed to correct the issues I had. It was almost as if the awkwardness was deliberate, to reflect on British society of the time and wouldn’t it just be better if we could all just be friendly and open with one another. I agree, Brief Encounter. I agree.

Overall, Brief Encounter is a flawed but bittersweet love story that suffers a little from being too stiff and British. Probably not the happiest of endings for Valentine’s Day, however. Ah well. I tried.

Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg, Margaret Barton
Written by Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allen, David Lean & Ronald Neame
Produced by Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allen & Ronald Neame
Music by Sergei Rachmaninoff
Cinematography by Robert Krasker
Edited by Jack Harris

Favourite Scene: “Do you know, I believe we should all behave quite differently if we lived in a warm, sunny climate all the time. We shouldn’t be so withdrawn and shy and difficult.” YES
Scene That Bugged Me: Not really a scene, but more the awkward Britishness that pervades the movie.

Watch it if: You like classic love stories
Avoid it if: You’re allergic to the British

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Posted on February 14, 2014, in 1940s, Drama, Romance, United Kingdom and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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