The two principles of David Lean’s Brief Encounter never consummate their love, or even acknowledge it, but of all the movie characters to have fallen in love over the past century, no two may mean more than Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). When they meet at a railway station cafe, they fall for one another, but they are denied their romance by social convention; they are both married, and, although the film doesn’t state it, the then-knowledgeable sense that divorce was frowned on in their world becomes palpable almost from the first instant. Which is the essence of Brief Encounter: not ashamed of itself and totally sincere, but minimalist and hauntedly hinting when other movies would openly declare. More than realism, Brief Encounter is the ultimate study in unfulfilled love and the quiet doom of knowing the end is near, only to have it forced upon you against your own terms.
Not that it is a masterpiece of subtlety, mind you. Lean, in his early, pre-epic days, and writer Noël Coward (adapting from his own play Still Life) give us a film that is almost violently sedate, but its colossally British demeanor is restrained in the stuffiest of ways. Characters speak with rigid formality and awareness of social mores, giving Brief Encounter a genteel, somewhat clinically detached tone that approaches anti-enthusiast formalism. A sequence where Jesson is introduced to Harvey’s medical interests finds her referring to him as suddenly looking like a “young boy”. She doesn’t say why, but all is made apparent through implication. For once, he seems invested in something, excited, enthusiastic, and passionate, rather than dictatorially composed in the manner of proper conduct they routinely exercise. The implication is that love makes them youthful again, but they can’t acknowledge it. Composed, the film is, even in its unstated gestures. Are we meant to think it naughty of the film that she might enjoy him talking about his profession as a doctor? Does it display undue interest? The film keeps itself buttoned-up, and doesn’t address it. Silly by today’s standards, surely, but it speaks to a truth at the time, to the stubborn conventions of social mores, and the film believes in what it is saying about these mores, which is what matters.
That peculiar, embattled combination is the essence of Brief Encounter: arch-composure and lithe, little unspeakable hints peeking through that must nonetheless remain unspoken due to the clipped composure of British society. The stuffiness of the material, even the stuffiness of Johnson’s internal monologue throughout the film, speaks not to the gentle diction and tired propriety of the material, but to the film’s desire to move beyond this diction and this propriety, and its constricting awareness that it can’t. It knows it can’t, because society won’t allow it to. Johnson’s internal narrative (“it was a terribly bad picture”, “we shouldn’t be so withdrawn, shy, and difficult”, “it should have given me a pang of conscience but it didn’t” all spoken within moments of each other) speaks to her internal morality crisis. She wants to break free from British stuffiness, but she can’t, even when she is alone in her mind, because that society is part of her. Even when she pines to break free, the way she phrases her desire is always bound by the formal diction of the time period, a marker of her internal prison. She is an embodiment of her culture, and her culture won’t allow her what she really wants, a fact she is only just realizing.
The heartbreak exists not at odds with the film’s gentle nature, but because of it. Brief Encounter is so unassuming in its lightness and conformity that it disguises its pangs of curiosity about its own conformity; it hides the fact that it is coming to terms with its will to break from social acceptance, just like its characters, and it must confront its ultimate inability to complete this transition. The film plays the old, undersexed Brit in other words, and it secretly reveals its attempt to break from this mode. Its genius is that it adopts the central demeanor of its characters: artificial, forced, focused on outside presentation, but secretly exposing genuine desire and beauty and a desire to escape. Until, of course, it realizes that it is, like its characters, a product of its society, and that it never truly can break free and cavort off into the sunset.
It dreams of escape, however. Robert Krasker’s lush chiaroscuro initially seems unnoticeable (a classic case of a film with a heart and no visual eye to guide that heart toward the viewers). That is, until it reveals the desperate nature of its death-marked visuals, quietly but palpably sneaking up on us and creepingly insinuating the limits of this romance and the ever-present dread slowly lingering into these two lost souls until they themselves realize their love is doomed. The lack of color traps them, while the contrast between the whites and blacks of the cinematography reveal the characters’ lustful inner emotions leaping to burst out of their mortal skin before being forced back into place. Just as the two would-be lovers come to terms with their own desire to break free from convention too late, so too is the sobriety of the piece a critique of sobriety that doesn’t reveal itself until too late. It is a film that addresses its own artificial habits by suffocating itself with those habits, evoking the way in which its icy formalism surrounds and entraps its characters, and entraps itself as a film, in its own vice. The film, essentially, addresses the fact that it can’t be honest about its emotions, that it has to obfuscate, that it has to keep its characters apart. That it can’t show sex, for instance, or that it can’t have them exchange lustful glances of sexual animalism and carnal passion.
Johnson’s totally wordless expression in the first scene is the film’s peak, the utterly sublime intersection of a film trying to state its emotions and coming undone right before it can. On their last meeting (the rest of the film is told in flashback), the two figures are sitting down at a table, and the camera focuses on other present figures. It is as if the camera is ashamed for its interest in the two figures who will become our protagonists, so it has to pretend to look elsewhere. A woman walks in and identifies herself as a friend of the female, who we learn is Mrs. Jesson, and chats with her, while Dr. Harvey, the man, remains silent. His train comes, and he puts his hand on Mrs. Jesson’s shoulder, before leaving without looking back. We know him here as just a man, and the status of his relationship with Mrs. Jesson is unstated. We have no context. They could be husband and wife. But when he leaves, and puts his hand on her shoulder, and when the camera is shocked into submission by Mrs. Jesson’s quiet expression of wordless love and loss while her friend continues to speak, everything is clear.
This man loves her, and she loves this man, and they are never going to see each other again. And they’ve been denied the only thing they had: a spoken conclusion to their love, a display of their need for one another. They can’t express love in public with Mrs. Jesson’s friend there, for she would surely inform her husband. We spend the rest of the film learning how these two arrived at this final meeting, but the whole story is told in the first scene with nothing but a hand, a shoulder, and a look of utter heartbreak. For someone like David Lean, who would find fame making the biggest and brashest films ever made, Brief Encounter is a remarkable study in clarity and concision, in filmmaking that eludes only to reveal why it is eluding, why it can’t state what it wants to state, and pains when it tries to state it.
In the end, Jesson opens up, breathes honesty, but honesty that can only come once it follows loss. The camera fixates on her, a darkness almost swallows her up in the frame, the film unwinds, she embraces emptiness, and she pulls back again. And with almost nothing, the film gives us everything. Confused and contorted, yes, but painfully honest, and without an answer, and the film hurts all the more-so because it not only grapples with the question of love in a potentially sterile society, but because it is frequently afraid to grapple. We feel it straining to move beyond its own preconceptions about love, so much so that its efforts may feel forced and theatrical. Indeed, the film may feel undersexed, like a theatrical play about love rather than an expression of real love. But the forced theatricality is a marker of honesty, a marker of the film realizing the way in which society is a theater, of the film trying and failing to move beyond that theater like its characters trying to move beyond the presentational artifice of social interaction. The film realizes its own failures and shows the failures to us with arms wide open, which is the most humble thing any film can do, and arguably the greatest show of confidence.