David Lean’s Brief Encounter, from Noel Coward’s play Still Life, has seen its reputation slip. A complaint has been leveled against it: Just where do we find the affair between the man and the woman, both of whom are married but not to one another? We never see the couple make love; we see them only sneaking about, trying to be intimately together. It is an odd complaint, really, one that implies an endorsement of adultery and an indifference to the fact that arranged or semi-arranged marriages, as well as marriages of convenience, have momentously declined in the Western world. That world has passed by Brief Encounter. But our hedonistic culture need not be a barrier to our enjoyment of Lean’s wonderful (and by no means moralistic) black-and-white film. One simply has to accept as convention the starting-point that Laura Jesson’s guilt over the affair—the film, which largely unfolds as Jesson’s flashbacks, penetrates her mental state—is what remains as residue. The affair has ended because her lover, Alec Harvey, a medical general practitioner, has moved to Africa—where else?—with his wife and family. And Jesson (Celia Johnson, sensitive and brilliant—best actress, New York Film Critics Circle) is securely back with her complacent spouse with his crossword puzzles, their measured, mutually considerate life, and their two annoying children. Because of the intrusion of a gossipy acquaintance, all Jesson got from Harvey at their parting was a hand on the shoulder.
Beautifully photographed by Robert Krasker, Lean’s film is a fine, repressed study of middle-class doldrums, with condescending working-class colorfulness set at the fringes in a train-station restaurant. Something Laura says provides the key to understanding her, her moods and a segment of the wartime/postwar English mindset: “Not even life lasts very long.”
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