‘Brief Encounter’ Tells a Story About Stories That Can’t Be Told

From 2011, in our attempt to spotlight all of the Criterion Collection, Landon Palmer discusses David Lean’s 1946 classic.
Brief Encounter
Criterion Collection via Filmgrab
By  · Published on September 7th, 2011

Welcome to Criterion Files, our early column focused on the Criterion Collection’s extensive library of classic titles. This entry spotlights spine #76, David Lean’s Brief Encounter.

The problem with cinephilia is that eventually, one feels that they begin to run out of ‘essential’ films to see. The act of watching movies is continually a process of discovery, but as one continues to watch films not as a hobby but as a part of their life-blood, it becomes harder to find individual titles that are revelatory and profound, movies that shape an alter not only your conception of cinema but art and life as well.

The more you see, the fewer new experiences you have – not only because you may have traversed the corners of whatever canon you’ve chosen to cover, but because individual titles become objects of interest accentuating a larger understanding of the medium rather than individual exploits of incredible worth.

To see a truly outstanding film, then, becomes an even more rare and valuable occurrence.

David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1946) is simply one of those films that I’m surprised I hadn’t seen before, not because I have any pretensions toward having anything approaching a “comprehensive” knowledge of film, but because it’s a work of such profound perfection that it seems only natural that this movie would have been made in this precise way. It’s an audacious, incongruous film, exceptional and unmatched. It’s a devastating and beautiful film that I’m not surprised has survived time’s test, for its themes are as insightful and resonant as its storytelling is engrossing and affecting.

“Fred, dear Fred. There’s so much that I want to say to you. You’re the only one in the world with enough wisdom and gentleness to understand. If only it was somebody else’s story and not mine. As it is, you’re the only one in the world that I can never tell…”

I came into Brief Encounter with a familiarity with, but hardly an enduring love for, David Lean’s work. I appreciate his vast, visually compelling approach to classic CinemaScope works like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and especially The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957), but his epic storytelling was not, for me, as expansive as my limited emotional connection to his narratives. To look back into his career and see the comparatively ‘small’ story of a couple (Laura and Alec, played brilliantly by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) who can’t consummate their love for each other because they are each already married is something of a surprise on a number of levels.

Noel Coward, who wrote the original play “Still Life” as well as this adaptation, is rumored to have written this work as an allegory for a) the many ‘brief encounters’ that happened during The War, whose circumstances gave British women an unprecedented amount of sexual and social freedom, and/or b) for the impossibility of a homosexual relationship in midcentury Britain. While there’s no doubt that Brief Encounter’s deceptively simple narrative resonates a great deal with many stories of and social contexts for forbidden love, Lean’s adaptation of this work says a great deal about the social roles, opportunities, and limitations of British women during a time of great change, especially in contrast with the director later works.

River Kwai, Lawrence, and Dr. Zhivago are films indisputably about males and masculinity, structured through a male subjective viewpoint in their focus on — and endorsement of values in — fraternity, control, achievement, and conquer. In fact, if anything, these films manifest in the exterior any interior experience of socialized male values, this tied to Lean’s signature visual style, whether in the theme of hubris articulated through Kwai’s great disaster, the expanse of the desert as a symbol of man’s limitless potential achievement in Lawrence (accompanied, appropriately, with the technological dominance of CinemaScope), or the preservation of heritage signified by the ice palace in Zhivago.

“I know how you disapprove of women smoking in the street…”

Lean’s female-centered narratives are more modest in scope (and Scope), and primarily focus on a largely interior and intimate emotional experience. As in his Katherine Hepburn-starring Summertime (1955), Brief Encounter asks the spectator to feel, fully, both the enthralling and the devastating elements of forbidden love. But Brief Encounter is a truly unique entry in Lean’s filmography because of its rare use of narration as both a storytelling device and as an interior monologue, which frames our guidance through the entire film to be one of an inner emotional experience recounted through the specific subjectivity of the female protagonist.

Brief Encounter’s employment of narration as a retrospectively framing storytelling device is similar to the contemporaneous “women’s films” in the US (i.e., Mildred Pierce, also about a woman struggling between her socially constricted gender role and newfound independence, released only a year earlier). But this is the narration, as we are reminded by the film’s end, of a testament never spoken aloud. Brief Encounter is fundamentally about the things we don’t tell one another and explores the notion that we all still lead secret lives even amongst those with whom we share the most, those we’re ostensibly closest to.

“Alex behaved so perfectly, with such perfect politeness. Nobody could have guessed what he was feeling.”

This narrative device of telling a story that isn’t actually shared with anyone is part of the film’s insightful critique of propriety amongst the upper class, which emphasizes that customs of acceptable social behavior shield our basic ability to communicate what we most profoundly feel to one another for fear of disrupting the perceived unity of the larger social system. The cost of propriety is honesty, even – as exhibited when Laura is at first in denial of her own feelings – the ability to be honest with ourselves. As the above quote illustrates, even when their doomed love affair comes to its inevitable and devastating end, the dominance of propriety is so enculturated in Laura that she still values those who have mastered it even though it has prevented her from being able to love honestly.

“Isn’t it awful about people meaning to be kind?”

Brief Encounter’s novelistic approach to forbidden love presents a story that could only have been told in the first half of the twentieth century. The technologies available for transportation and social independence combined with the sustained customs and repressive modes of propriety that come with being part of a wealthy class who can afford these technological means of agency make for an environment that is both oppressively restrictive and teasingly opportune. Laura and Alec are able to use the train to see each other in private, but at the same time, the mechanisms of the train itself are outside of their control, their times of departure are determined by its schedule just as their inability to be with one another is determined by their domestic and social responsibilities. It is no surprise, then, that the train itself is what Laura ponders using to end her life, as it brought the joy and pain of knowing Alec and acted as the means by which he left her life forever.

Laura is then something of a pre-feminist who recognizes that she stands, temporally and culturally, in a liminal space where she understands the possible ways that things could have been in opposition to the constrictive way that things are and will likely continue to be for her lifetime. But while Brief Encounter is a specifically postwar, specifically British film about characters that occupy a specific social class, its themes are timeless and enduring, for in every society one learns to accept and value their codes of proper behavior, and never question it until they witness a brief, impossible, and torturing glimpse of what may lie on the other side.