I grew up watching old films. I can’t remember the first time I watched David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), I feel like I’ve always known it. However, it wasn’t until I watched it as a teenager that it became one of my favourite films.
If you haven’t seen Brief Encounter it’s the story of a suburban housewife called Laura who has a chance meeting at a train station with a doctor called Alec (played by a young and dashing Trevor Howard). They arrange to see each other the following week, instinctively knowing what that means but not quite admitting it to themselves. When they do acknowledge their true feelings to each other the relationship, or perhaps just the fantasy of the relationship, is over. However, they cannot end it immediately, so they plan some more time together. If you’ve seen Won Kar-Wei’s In the Mood for Love you will know how poignant it is for lovers to conspire to minimise their heartbreak.
Awfully middle class
Celia Johnson’s portrayal of Laura is remarkable; as an actress she manages to be both understated and bursting with feeling. I’ve always loved films where ostensibly, not a lot happens but, of course, everything happens – Celia Johnson was the embodiment of this style. Before Meryl Streep there was Celia Johnson. However, the combination of Celia’s accent and middle-class sexual repression has made the film subject to gentle mocking.
There is no getting away from Laura’s posh accent in the film and although hers isn’t the only one, it does stand out among the rest. However, it is consistent with the character. Although they are not upper class, they are fairly affluent. Laura and her husband have domestic help which puts a different spin on Laura’s weekly escapades; you can’t help but imagine floors being scrubbed or silverware polished whilst her and Alec laugh at the elderly, musical trio who appear to follow them around. Laura’s children have silly accents too, and are a weak link in the film. Her screen daughter has clearly been instructed to look straight ahead and say the bloody lines. Thankfully, the children do not have many lines.
Victoria Wood’s parody hasn’t helped Brief Encounter’s legacy, in this rendition, Laura forgets how to eat a minced pie and gets some of it stuck in her eye before meeting a doctor (who is no Trevor Howard…). I like Victoria Wood’s comedy but this sketch tested my affections. As I’ve grown older, I’ve mellowed and almost see the funny side.
On Brief Encounter’s 70th anniversary, journalist John Patterson described how he went from laughing at the film to laughing (and crying) with it:
“I thought I was terribly clever to treat it as a comedy, not realising that tragedy and comedy both depend on good timing, and that a moment like, say, the arrival of the gabby gossip Dolly Messiter, just in time to ruin the last few precious moments of the couple’s near-affair, is amusing and unendurably heart-breaking all at once.” Read full article here.
The ending described by Patterson was replicated in the 2015 film, Carol by Todd Haynes which in turn, is based on the 1952 novel, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. In Carol an intimate conversation is innocently interrupted (as it is by Dolly Messiter in Brief Encounter).
At university, I took a module in Women’s History and read an essay on the possible consequences for Laura had she and Alec decided to abandon their partners for each other. It was a chapter in Christine Gledhill and Gillian Swanson’s Nationalising Femininity: Culture, Sexuality and British Cinema in the Second World War. Although I already loved the film, I started to see it differently and in this new context it was even sadder.
Why didn’t they just run off with each other? For Laura the stakes were very high; she could have lost everything. Her ability to see her children would be dependent on her scorned husband’s goodwill. If he left the children in Laura’s custody without offering funds, she would need to petition for maintenance (Laura herself would not be entitled to financial support) and the details of her affair would become public (i.e. local) knowledge. Alec, her new love, wouldn’t be legally obliged to provide financial support for Laura and should he decide to go back to his wife and children, Laura would potentially find herself in dire straights – possibly with no children, no home (if divorced) and after years of being a housewife, forced into employment (which might be hard to find if her circumstances were known).
Sex, sexuality and shame
Of course, in reality, although there is no sex in the film, the whole film is entirely about sex. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 blasts from the record player as Laura thinks about Alec while Fred earnestly attempts to complete his crossword. “I’m an ordinary woman,” Laura thinks to herself, “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” The choice of the wording here is interesting – Laura uses ‘violence’ to describe what she feels, which is probably lust rather than love.
Although they do not consummate their affair, if you pay attention, Laura and Alec do come very close to the deed. I say, ‘pay attention’ because I first watched the film as a child and it wasn’t especially obvious to me at the time. Alec has a key to his friend Stephen’s flat where he sometimes stays when working at the local hospital. It does make you wonder whether Laura is Alec’s first extramarital romance. Knowing that his friend will be out for the evening, the possibility of sex hangs in the air throughout a day spent with Laura. Unfortunately for Alec, Laura cannot bring herself to go back to the flat and so, frustrated, he decides to leave Laura at the station and return there, effectively providing her with an ultimatum, which Laura eventually acts upon. Although she is jittery and unsure of herself, the audience understands that Laura by doing so, Laura will commit adultery.
In one of several cruel twists of fate, Stephen returns home unexpectedly, forcing Laura to leave via the back door to avoid detection. Laura wanders the streets in shame and despair.
The screenplay for Brief Encounter is written by Noel Coward and is based on his play, Still Life. Both can be read as a metaphor for gay love affairs in the same period. In That special thrill: Brief Encounter, homosexuality and authorship, Andy Medhurst explains that “Employing the naively biographical paradigm of Gay Authorship, Brief Encounter shows Noel Coward displacing his own fears, anxieties and pessimism about the possibility of a fulfilled sexual relationship within an oppressively homophobic culture by transposing them into a heterosexual context.”
Although it isn’t explicit, I suspect that Stephen, Alec’s bachelor friend is supposed to be gay. This is an inference you can sometimes take from bachelors in old films. Also, although he scolds Alec, it is not for the affair, or even for using his flat, but for not telling Stephen, therefore, betraying his trust. Stephen asks Alec for his key back, but Laura’s shame takes a more pitiful form.
Unable to go home directly, Laura makes a phone call to her husband, making up an excuse for being out so late. It is not the first lie she tells to cover the affair that lacks any physical betrayal (if you disregard them snogging like teenagers at the railway station).
Having nowhere to go, Laura walks the streets alone and in the rain until it finally stops. She then takes a seat outside on a bench, facing a war memorial – a foreboding monument to self-sacrifice. The path ahead is clear and also compounded by a suspicious police officer, the implication being that Laura is conducting herself suspiciously and for the time, implying she is a woman of loose morals – why else is she alone at night, in the cold and smoking a cigarette? The shame mounts and mounts. In this film, as in life, love is much worse for a woman.
The other side of the train tracks
The relationship of middle-class Laura and Alec takes place alongside the relationships of minor, working-class characters. In both Still Life and Brief Encounter, you may infer that working-class love is less complicated. At face value, it is a romantic notion, perhaps based on the idea that the poorer you are, the freer you can be as you have less to lose, although ‘less’ is clearly a relative term. I am not sure I buy into the idea.
The other relationship of note is between the café owner, Myrtle Bagot (played by Joyce Carey, one of Noel Coward’s frequent collaborators) and ticket inspector Albert Godby (played by Stanley Holloway who appears in many an Ealing Comedy). These fine actors bring these secondary characters to life and although their screen time is limited and comedic, they hint at so much more, as though they are part of another film being made elsewhere.
In an earlier scene, Myrtle explains to the tea assistant, Beryl, how she came to own the teashop. She left her husband who expected her to be ‘housekeeper and char during the day…and a loving wife in the evening.’ Myrtle had family and friends to support her out of an unhappy marriage, but without her, her husband was ‘dead as a doornail within three years.’ The stakes were high enough for him.
Laura describes Myrtle as ‘the one with the refined voice,’ perhaps as an alternative way of saying ‘the one who gives herself airs and graces.’
Myrtle is freer than Laura because she is single and financially independent. However, Myrtle still cares about propriety and scolds Albert for ‘taking liberties’ with her in front of a customer. Albert defends himself by reminding her of a different occasion when Myrtle was more receptive to his advances. Albert and Myrtle’s scenes are filled with affection and humour, (‘Albert! Now look at me Banburys all over the floor!’).
In one scene, Myrtle struggles to handle several rowdy youths wanting alcohol outside of licensing hours. Myrtle is of course a stickler for the rules. When Albert defends her, she softens to him – a sign that she may risk her independence again for another man.
Towards the end of the film, Beryl, Myrtle’s assistant, is seen giggling with a young man. Although happy, we remember that at the beginning of the film, Beryl mentioned her landlady, the one with various pets who is unlikely to welcome male visitors. During working hours, Beryl is often victim to Myrtle’s sharp tongue. Therefore, Beryl’s life isn’t necessarily easy or free of risk. She might escape her landlady and even her boss if she marries, but if he abused her, or if she simply grew to dislike him, she doesn’t seem the type to break free as Myrtle has managed to do.
Laura narrates the film and as such, you invest in her. Laura is someone who wants to be good but cannot easily combat the weight of her feelings for Alec.
There is a moment at the beginning of their relationship where Laura imagines herself and Alec in a variety of different romantic settings. In these glamorous fantasies, they are both younger and freer. The reality hits her when she arrives at the station and begins the walk home to her husband, Fred.
There is a moment towards the end, when Laura almost faints after running outside to see Alec’s train leave for the last time. The implication is that she might have easily stepped in front a train to end her sorrows. I’m not sure Laura was ever going to kill herself,and perhaps she wouldn’t have slept with Alec even had Stephen stayed out, but there were moments, however brief, when she wanted to do both.
Dolly Messiter interrupts her final goodbyes with Alec, leading Laura back home to humdrum Fred, domesticity and a lifetime of wondering ‘what if’.
I’ve always been struck by how relatable Laura is as she semi-listens to Dolly gossip to her on their way home while thinking: “I wish you’d stop talking. I wish you’d stop prying, trying to find things out. I wish you were dead. No, I don’t mean that. That was silly and unkind, but I wish you’d stop talking.”
At the end of the film, Fred appears to interrupt Laura’s day-dreaming. He understands that Laura has chosen him in some undefined way. This is a happy ending of sorts as Laura’s suffering is acknowledged without any recriminations. Fred isn’t a bad sort, at worst he is a bit boring but Laura isn’t unhappy in her marriage at the start of the film. However, my interpretation of the film is that it isn’t entirely about her feelings for either Alec or Fred. Instead, Alec represents that there might be more to her and to her life than she imagined possible. He represents passion but passion is a risky business for women in 1945, regardless of class. Fred was enough before Alec but not after him. I think if the film were remade from Alec’s perspective, we might see a bored man who turns a woman’s life upside down before his next adventure (he leaves at the end to take a job in South Africa).
Finally – this quote from Laura, when it is over with Alec, always makes me sad for her, as it suggests there are no more adventures for Laura.
This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts, really… neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute… always… always to the end of my days.
However, I imagine that in a sequel, Laura stays in her marriage until her children are older and then suddenly leaves Fred, no longer caring about the repercussions. This would be the early 1960s. Fred would be surprised she finally did it but he would understand why. Her children might take longer to come round. Maybe she would take a cruise, one she’d longed to take with Alec and when she returns, by chance their paths would cross. Except Alec would cut a sad figure and she would barely recognise him. When she does, she would be pleased to see him, an old friend and nothing more.