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75 years, briefly

Sanjeev Verma | Updated on December 02, 2020

Gold standard: Brief Encounter remains what Richard Attenborough called “a landmark and touchstone” for the film industry   -  WIKIPEDIA

Remembering David Lean’s Brief Encounter, its haunting music and portrayal of illicit, impassioned love

* The rush and roar of the steam engines and the stoking passions of the lovers punctuate the harsh but utterly romantic drama of Lean’s film that plays out to the strains of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto

* In Ireland, Brief Encounter was banned for promoting adultery, despite the fact that Laura and Alec’s relationship is never consummated

* The film stands apart in Lean’s cinematic oeuvre, which includes his much admired epic films, among them Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai

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Happenstance brings them together in a railway refreshment room and sparks one of cinema’s most enduring classics. Eight murky piano chords and then a sweeping melody for the strings soar on the soundtrack and David Lean’s Brief Encounter is underway. It’s the story of Laura and Alec, who have a brief, illicit love affair. The time they spend together is joyful, however ephemeral, even though they know their liaison is doomed to end in heartbreak.

The rush and roar of the steam engines and the stoking passions of the lovers punctuate the harsh but utterly romantic drama of Lean’s film that plays out to the strains of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. They don’t say it but the images, and the soundtrack, express their repressed feelings: Why do you have a husband, and why do I have a wife? If only...

Seventy-five years after it was first screened, the story is still profound and deeply moving. More important, it stands apart in Lean’s cinematic oeuvre, which includes his much admired epic films, among them Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Celia Johnson’s voice-over, as Laura, narrates the story — a raft of feelings she and Alec (Trevor Howard) have for each other in a tone of aching longing. A piece of grit in her eye, followed by Alec’s gallant attempt to remove it, leads to afternoons together, and a visit to the cinema (the film they see is Flames of Passion), a long drive into the countryside and, finally, a rendezvous at the apartment of a friend of Alec’s that ends embarrassingly for both. And, finally, the realisation that their liaison is doomed and must remain unrequited.

As an interloping friend prattles on in the railway refreshment room, Alec squeezes Laura’s shoulder and is gone. Forever. The brief encounter is over. Never has a squeeze of the shoulder at the moment of parting been more wistful and exquisitely anguished. They are, as the Russian writer Anton Chekhov wrote in a short story about an adulterous relationship, “...like two birds of passage, a male and a female, forced to live in separate cages”. In Brief Encounter the lovers come together for a birdsong or two before flying back to their own coops.

It is tantalising to imagine how British audiences, in the receding footsteps of World War II, would have reacted to this consummately scripted story of illicit love. In Ireland, Brief Encounter was banned for promoting adultery, despite the fact that Laura and Alec’s relationship is never consummated.

In a biography of David Lean, film historian Kevin Brownlow recalled an incident where an angry man stepped up to Lean at a railway station in London and declared that he had the urge to hit him and was holding back. “Do you realise, sir,” he told the film-maker, “that if Celia Johnson could contemplate being unfaithful to her husband, my wife could contemplate being unfaithful to me?”

Sight & Sound, the influential British film magazine, publishes a list of the greatest films of all time every 10 years. They invite film-makers and critics to nominate their 10 favourite films and then collate those lists to publish a definitive list of the most influential films ever made. I was first invited to send my list of 10 in 1992. Brief Encounter easily found a place on my list that year and in 2002 and 2012 as well.

In 2022, too, I hope to be invited to put together my 10 and, while I will agonise over my final choices, the Lean film will again be a shoo-in. Unlike a hundred other films about doomed love before and since, Brief Encounter has riveting dramaturgy, noirish cinematography (by Robert Krasker) and perhaps the most meaningful film score you will ever hear.

Lean employs Rachmaninoff’s concerto to say more about their true feelings than they do themselves, as Laura and Alec fight their passion and their consciences, hidden behind the proprieties of convention.

Shortly after my first viewing of the film, I saw the American ‘brief encounter’: Falling in Love (1984), with Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. Two New York commuters, each happily married, who meet, fall in love and then don’t know what to do about it. It’s a homage to Lean, but in spite of the presence of my two favourite screen actors, the American film seems false and manipulative, though not quite as wretched as the inexplicable 1974 remake of the Lean classic, which starred Richard Burton and Sophia Loren.

It may have influenced many a cinematic brief encounter since its release, but the original Brief Encounter remains what Richard Attenborough called “a landmark and touchstone” for the film industry.

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in Delhi

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Published on December 02, 2020
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