A BRIEF ENCOUNTER – 1945 – movie – directed and written by David Lean – based upon a one act play, “Still Life” by Noel Coward – produced by Noel Coward - players are: Laura (Celia Johnson), Alec (Trevor Howard), Albert (Stanley Holloway), Myrtle (Joyce Carey).
We hear Sergei Rachmaninoff’s, Piano Concerto #2, played by Eileen Joyce at fitting moments throughout the film.
Movies of this era bring back memories of myself in the 1940’s, sitting in a dark theater, in a small rural town, and watching Hollywood’s version of how normal people lived, dressed and conducted themselves. Life where I was raised, was much, much different. In David Lean’s movie we see Laura coming home from her shopping trip at around 9:00 in the evening. The children are already in bed and she and her husband, who is still dressed in his business suit, share a pot of black coffee.
As a wide-eyed kid of 8 years old, I readily accepted that this was normal behavior for people outside the horizons of my small valley confined by the Cascade Mountains.
I envisioned that maybe, I’ll live like that someday too. Surprise, surprise… fate stepped in, and such a transmutation did not take place.
David Lean has been lauded for this movie because he accomplished so much with so little money, and without any of the super stars of the day. The story begins with the two lovers and their painful parting. About 15 minutes later we shift to flashback, and Laura tells their story in voice-over.
Shooting took place in the last months of WWII at the Carnforth railway station in Lancashire, which was too far north to be a target for German V2 rockets, therefore the blackout was not observed.
Carnforth has kept the features intact as a tribute to the film.
Scenes in the Kardomah Café and other interiors were shot in a studio.
This movie goes down in film history as one of Lean’s most worthwhile directorial efforts. Shortly after WWII, Robert Altman’s wife, Kathryn, recalled that Altman happened to wander into the movie by accident. He said that it seemed pretty slow, but within 20 minutes he was in tears. This movie has been nominated as one of the ten greatest films ever made. It is only 83 minutes long, but it will remain with you forever.
Only those without a romantic bone in their body could fail to make this one of their favorite movies … look out Casablanca! The story takes place in 1938 in the London suburbs. Two bored, married, middle class people are mutually attracted. They have a deeply emotional affair of the heart that is destined not to be consummated. This movie is a rare examination of the conflicts that arise when love and desire meet the limitations imposed by middle class moral obligation. Everyone who touched this production deserves praise for their contribution in making it such a stunning portrayal of human longing.
David Lean, with intuitive insight, cast a woman who looks “ordinary”. Celia Johnson is not some idealized, sultry and intriguing bit of femininity that would make men perk up and gaze with possessive longing as she crossed the room.
Trevor Howard grew to become a fine actor, but in this movie David Lean and Noel Coward commented that he had no idea what was going on. He did not understand why he couldn't just take her to a hotel room and bang away. That being true, then it’s a credit to his acting ability because he had us all fooled.
Glamorizing these two characters is precisely why the Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1974 TV movie remake, with Sophia Loren and Richard Burton, was a dismal failure. I like Burton and Loren but under the direction of Alan Bridges they were unable to match the artful intensity of Johnson and Howard. It has to be disappointing to work on a movie that, to all observers, is doomed to fail.
Bridges managed to strip the original version entirely of the subtle drama imposed by the social constraints of the time. After that movie’s bad reviews in New York, all plans for further distribution were abandoned.
Laura: “I’m an ordinary woman… such things don’t happen to an ordinary woman…. I’ve fallen in love”. In 1981 Celia Johnson was made a Dame of the British Empire.
She died of a stroke, at her home near Oxford in 1982 at the age of 73. She was to have opened in a play that evening called “The Understanding”. She was best known for the role she played in Lean’s movie. She said that early in her life she realized that she was very plain and unattractive, but she just “thought it would be nice to act… and I that it might be rather wicked”. She was married to Peter Fleming the brother of Ian Fleming… they had a son and two daughters.
Noel Coward’s ending is the capstone of this movie. At that time, the middle class was the bulwark of the social norm. Laura and Alec’s capitulation to the standards that ruled their era, regardless of their personal pain, is what is what raised his play to greatness. The old stiff upper lip lived out to its painful conclusion.
The on-going success of this story is a tribute to Noel Coward’s talent as a story-teller. It may have been a brief encounter for Laura and Alec but the passions it stirred up lived on in many radio theater adaptions during that era; they stared Stewart Granger, Debora Karr, Ingrid Bergman, Greer Garson, Lilli Palmer, Van Heflin, Olivia de Havilland and Richard Basehart.
A new stage adaptation was created from the Coward’s original play and the movie script. This re-write is still being performed today. Coward’s script was later adapted into a well-received opera by 80 year-old Andre Previn in 2009. So, his original play “Still Life” became two movies, numorous radio dramas, a well-received opera and then back to the stage… quite a run.
“A Brief Encounter” was banned in Ireland because it was sympathetic to adultery.