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Brief Encounter (1945)
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by MP Bartley

"Stiff upper lips and broken hearts."
3 stars

It could be said that David Lean is the founding father of one particular cinematic cliche - the lovers being torn apart at a train station. Of course these days it tends to be airports, but this was 1945 and the point remains the same.

The lovers are Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard). Alec is a doctor who assists Laura when she gets some grit in her eye whilst waiting for her train. Over the next few days, they have a couple more chance encounters which leads to the two of the, both in dull and stifling marriages, to start meeting discretely and on purpose. But as the title of the film may suggest, their meetings can only be brief as the social norms of the day force the two of them into an impossible position.

David Lean obviously favoured trains as a mode of transport - they'd go on to feature heavily in his big, epic, Oscar-sweeping dramas such as Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago. Here, they're a contrast of the public and the personal, Laura and Alec trying to conduct their agonisingly private matters in a place where the public can wander in and out of their lives, and chattering friends of Laura can interrupt their most secretive of trysts. It's a canny turn by Lean, to make these sooty and grimy places into places of shadows and secrets and it's those moments that linger longest in the memory - steam trains billowing away into the distance, fog and smoke shrouding the platforms and cheerful station masters and tea ladies completely unaware of how their bonhomie contrasts with the private mourning of Alec and Laura as they are forced to say goodbye to each other again and again.

But if there's another cliche that Brief Encounter helped cement it's of the upper and middle class Briton as a stiff-lipped, unemotional soul, bravely and stoically taking whatever life and love throws at them. Perhaps rightly, it's a cliche that has stuck ever since (it's one that Richard Curtis in particular likes to trade upon), but it's a cliche that is hard to take seriously in a contemporary age. Laura and Alec do nothing more than take days out in the country, kiss furtively in the shadows and cast lingering glances over endless cups of tea - pretty scandalous stuff back then I'd imagine, but something that plays as trite and melodramatic now.

Johnson and Howard are both excellent in their roles, trying to suggest raging passion and desire behind tightly-lipped smiles. Johnson in particular doing good work with an essentially insufferable character. Her pious, "woe is me" voiceover tends to grate after a while, and Noel Coward's script is packed full of lines that again, may have rang emotionally true on first release, but clang hollow and silly now - the biggest flaw that Brief Encounter has is that it now seems a parody of itself.

No doubt this had them weeping in the aisles back in 1945. But today, despite the laudable efforts of Lean, Johnson and Howard, it's hard to watch it without smirking just a little at the endless agonising of seemingly not very much.

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originally posted: 09/14/11 19:24:28
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  24-Aug-1946 (NR)

  26-Nov-1945 (PG)

  N/A (G)

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