Saturday, February 15, 2014

Film Review: Brief Encounter

"Brief Encounter"  **** (out of ****)

Brief encounters. Special moments. Sometimes, what seem to be chance encounters, can end up being defining moments in our lives. Moments which will have a lasting effect on us. This is what David Lean's "Brief Encounter" (1945) is about.

Often cited as "the British Casablanca", "Brief Encounter" tells a story of a love which would not be. A woman, Laura (Celia Johnson) meets a man, Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), accidentally at a train station. She had something caught in her eye and he took it out. From this innocent encounter springs a romance. The problem is they are both married with children.

"Brief Encounter" was film-maker David Lean and "wonder boy" Noel Coward's fourth and final collaboration. The two men worked on "In Which We Serve" (1942), Lean's directorial debut, "This Happy Breed" (1944) and "Blithe Spirit" (1945). "Brief Encounter" is generally considered their best work together and is routinely considered one of the great movie romances.

The film should strike a nerve with viewers. It takes a basic cinematic premise, love can find us anywhere, and turns it on its head. It may not give you the ending you are hoping for. But it is a general idea audiences would love to believe. Isn't it secretly something we all hope for? At least those that are single. Love can find us anywhere. Maybe we will meet a special person on our bus ride to work. Bump into someone at the grocery store. Or at a train station.

Trains are a very important element in "Brief Encounter". All those people coming and going. Getting on and off trains. Each has a story. Any one of them could change our lives. Who knows what type of drama is being played out in the shadows. Lovers breaking up, going their separate ways. Secret affairs beginning or ending. There is constant movement in train stations.

These are some of the things you should be thinking about when watching this movie. Love can find us anywhere and each person has a story. A personal drama.

As one might expect this love affair between Laura and Alec is rather reserve. You know the way the British are. They must worry about respectability. Being prim and proper. Not allowing their emotions to get the best of them. But, when love is the subject, that is hard to do. You can only control your emotions to a certain degree. No one can completely suppress their feelings.

In the first scene of this movie we see two people sitting in a cafe in a train station. They are two of many people. Suddenly a friend notices one of the two. The friend sits down at their table and start to endlessly gab anyway. The two people are Laura and Alec. The friend is one of Laura's. A train whistle blows. It is Alec's train. He must leave. Laura, not wanting to leave her friend behind, doesn't see him off. He hesitantly walks away. She eyes catch his for a moment. He leaves while the friend continues talking. Next Laura's train arrives. She and her friend board it.

It is on Laura's train ride home, in a narration, we come to learn what we have just seen. This was to be Laura and Alec's last encounter. They were in love. He is leaving the country with his family. Never again we they see each other. And, in their final moments together, this friend showed up, depriving them of their final goodbye. Their last embrace.

The rest of the film, told in flashback, shows us what has lead to this final meeting.

I call "Brief Encounter" a romance and compare it to "Casablanca" (1943). Some may counter that claim. But "Brief Encounter" is romantic. It shows a doomed love, but, are those the stories we have been brought up to believe our romantic? Wuthering Heights? Romeo & Juliet? As for the "Casablanca" connection, people never seen to comment on the cynical nature of that movie. Rick's actions at the end aren't done out his deep love for Ilsa. Their love is gone. Rick knows this. He isn't making a great sacrifice, as so many often believe. He realizes Ilsa no longer loves him. She only loves Victor Laszlo. "Brief Encounter" is similar in not giving us the Hollywood ending. There is a melancholy throughout the picture, thanks largely to the musical soundtrack, consisting of a beautiful rendition of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. Which to me starts off so sad and tender.

The two performances by Johnson and Howard are deeply effective. Nearly everything Celia Johnson does hits home and makes her a believable character. Her facial expressions convey the hurt she is feeling. Love is gone. There is a tragic feeling in the air when that happens. Your world has collapsed. You manage to tune out the rest of the world. Only that person you lost occupies your mind. It is the only thing you are able to think of. It is all your brain has room for. Johnson's performance captures this.

In that final scene between the both of them we can sense Howard's disappointment. Life and now this friend have robbed them of happiness. But Howard plays it off. Again, showcasing the proper British attitude. Must not let your guard down.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards among them best actress (Johnson) and best director (Lean). Johnson lost to Olivia de Havalland that year, who was in "To Each His Own" (1946). Lean lost to William Wyler, who directed "The Best Years Of Our Lives" (1946), which also won best picture that year.

"Brief Encounter" is a beautiful film. Well acted and directed the film can break your heart. Anyone that has loved should relate to the movie. And what about that final line in the film? I'll leave it up to you to interpret. What a line. What a sentiment. What a movie.