This couldn’t be more romantic–all the more so for it depicting unrequited love. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are convincingly taken with each other, as the casually-met commuters Alec and Laura. The plot is nothing here but the elaboration of the premise. That is–what happens between two married people, both somewhat unsatisfied, not quite young, and sort of attractive–fall in love? Brief Encounter reminds me a lot of the less successful DeNiro/Streep movie Falling In Love, from 1984. I mention this much later film because I don’t think Brief Encounter is dated. Sure, by the 80s it was much easier to sneak around, but that element really only matters in one scene in Brief Encounter. Otherwise, the qualities (and the emotional content) of infidelity haven’t changed.
We see this mostly from Laura’s point-of-view. I agree with those who see some of the skulking about amid noirish backdrops; we’re usually either in dismal weather, in nightime, or both. Even the escapes to the country have a desperate, contingent feel. Laura has to be around Alec, but never really relaxes with him, either. The fact that we never see his family is a device to keep the focus on Laura. She can’t just slip back into the comforts of home without some guilty psychosomatic consequences. It’s true that there’s nothing wrong with her domesticity. After all, the reason she’s able to cross paths with Alec and develop their relationship is that she has plenty of free time, presumably because her husband does well enough so that she can be out and about during the day.
Cyril Raymond, as her husband Fred, makes a solid, straightforward, if somewhat dull spouse. We get the feeling that Laura realizes her life will never change appreciably. She’s maybe in her late thirties and already feels middle-aged; Alec represents the path not taken. She doesn’t want to face the facts: she has her family, she’s a wife and mother, but what about her? In a more banal sense, she lacks excitement. She’s just vulnerable enough (as is Alec) to entertain an alternative. So she finds herself arranging things so she has plenty of time to meet up with Alec at the rail station’s cafe, and then venture out on ‘dates’.
The more adventurous she gets with Alec the harder it is to conceal things: her lies multiply, she gets seen with him, she misses a near-emergency with one of her kids, etc. One might say that he does the right thing by moving to South Africa. It’s either something like that or they both get found out. At least that way the status quo can be left intact. It’s agonizing for both of them in their final scene together when the chatterbox friend monopolizes their time. But it’s fitting as well, since it shows the fragility of their relationship. Even though it’s not more than a bare hint, the possibility of their reuniting in some undetermined future leaves an intriguing gloss to the romance.
This is beautifully done. There’s so much conveyed in Johnson’s eyes, by the subtle shifts in her face, that you want there to be more. A sort of autumnal sadness, vivid but quiet and melancholy. Some very good movies make you think–this one makes you feel. An exceptional character study; hard not to watch. 10/10.