David Lean is a director synonymous with grand-scale filmmaking. Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai are two great examples of the now dormant epic genre, lengthy and mesmerising in every sense, they provided grandiose spectacle. I had never expected Lean to craft a short, beautiful and resoundingly simple romantic piece in the form of Brief Encounter. Frankly, when compared to his later works, this project feels like it should be a tad below him. Nevertheless, Lean is no stranger to crafting astoundingly great feature films, and his work with the romantic film Brief Encounter is a great, influential study of the simplistic intricacies of the genre.
We follow two unsuspecting individuals, neither looking to fall in love, yet inevitably doing so. Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) have a literal brief encounter with one another at a train station, and soon a platonic relationship with romantic undertones strikes up between the two. It’s a beautifully performed piece, believable thanks to the hardships and difficulties the two face. They confide in one another; Lean makes great use of this short running time by having his stars interact with almost immediate intimacy. Fleeting glances, the occasional lingering look, it’s all crafted with such focus on the sudden fall Laura and Alec have for one another.
Brief Encounter is one of the few films from this era of history that I’d point to as a truly tremendous example of a changing culture. The film frames our protagonists as doing something that, by today’s standards, would be less scolding. There isn’t an affair to speak of for much of the film, just two friends who find solace in the company of one another, deflecting the problems of their lives away with a newly encountered friend. The final moments of the film, though, are rather forgettable. Inevitable fallout, a relationship that crashes and burns, as many relationships do when held behind the back of loved ones, but Lean’s direction perseveres somewhat in these scenes. He makes full use of his surroundings and lets the story play out rather naturally, even if the latter half is a bit uneven.
Inspiration for Richard Linklaters Before Trilogy, the obvious connection and similarities between that beloved trilogy and Brief Encounter should be clear. Lean’s work here is marvellous, a piece half the length of his other works, but just as emotionally holding. Strong messages linger around two great performances as passion collides in this memorable 40s piece. A heartbreaking account of two individuals who meet at the right place, in the wrong time, Brief Encounter explores the emotional fulfilment of two people who have nobody else to turn to, and it does so with extremely sincere conviction.