To commemorate the centenary of Lean's birth, the BFI Southbank and Film Four are running seasons showcasing his entire directorial career. His early films are amongst the best of British cinema. 'Great Expectations', the definitive Dickens adaptation would arguably be up there as a contender for the finest British film of all time. I'd argue that 'Brief Encounter' is every bit its equal. It's probably the one film of Lean's whose reputation has suffered more than any other in the last few decades (Lean's style of cinema was very much the kind that the new wave of the 1960s was supposed to discredit and overthrow). Many see it as too restrained, too polite, too middle class in its approach at adultery. On the other hand, I would see this approach as very much to the film's advantage. The fact that the adultery remains chaste and unconsummated adds greatly to the pain and suffering it causes.
'Brief Encounter', scripted by Noel Coward, Lean's chief collaborator at this time is indeed set in a typical Coward environment - the middle classes of the South Eastern suburbs. As Laura (Celia Johnson) suggests she's an ordinary woman with an ordinary life and family, though this is a facade; her marriage is nothing more than a polite arrangement. Her husband barely listens to her when she reveals she met Alec (Trevor Howard) for lunch. This partial confession goes unnoticed as if he wouldn't even react to being told the complete truth. Typically repressed and emotional sterile, the violence of falling in love with Alec comes as a shock. This doesn't happen to ordinary people. They meet after he assists her when she gets some grit in her eye at Milford Junction train station, and although nothing out of the ordinary seems likely, they meet every Thursday over the course of five or six weeks and find that they have fallen in love with each other, perhaps partially a reaction to their emotionally unfulfilling domestic circumstances.
Lean shows their relationship in its euphoric moments. When they reveal that they're in love with each other, Laura loses her inhibitions, becomes less concerned about being discovered and doesn't feel so ashamed. But what Lean also shows, and this is what makes the film even more moving and brilliant, is the guilt and pain of such an adulterous relationship, even one with few moments of genuine intimacy. For instance, on one Thursday when meeting Alec, she returns home to discover that one of her sons was hit by a car. Though not serious, she feels such extreme sorrow as if it was the direct result of her adultery. In her typical middle class way, Laura wants to be sensible and in control of her emotions, but finds it increasingly difficult to. The fact that Alec and Laura can never miss their trains, that even despite their love, they must return to their spouses at the correct time, is even more in keeping with their commitment to their suburban mores but also more emotionally devastating for us, as we are in full sympathy with an adulterous couple.
Lean begins and ends with the scene in which Alec and Laura part, but crucially he films it front different perspectives. At first, we have no emotional attachment and no knowledge of how we arrived at this point. It's filmed purely from a neutral angle, as a friend of Laura's interrupts Laura and Alec's poignant parting. The second time we see this scene, it's much more personal as we're now aware of the relationship that existed and how a parting that is so tragic and so difficult is halted by an unwanted gossip. Such is the cruelty of fate. There are few more devastating but romantic images in cinema that the moment Alec places his hand tenderly and sympathetically on Laura's shoulder as he finally leaves. As I mentioned, 'Brief Encounter' has become a film that's easy to criticise; its detractors question why the couple can't consummate their affair and question the restrained and polite bourgeois nature of it all. Sure, it's manipulative and pulls at your heartstrings, but that doesn't matter when it's done so well and so believably. Considered a landmark of British cinema and rightly so. 4.5/5