Brief Encounter - David Lean - Celia Johnson - Trevor Howard - Laura - Alec - Milford

Brief Encounter
1945, directed by David Lean

Brief Encounter is about a romantic extra-marital affair between two strangers who meet at a train station and fall quickly in love… or at least that’s what the woman in the affair, Laura Jesson, leads us to believe as she narrates the history of the relationship. “I remember feeling as if I was on the edge of a precipice. I think Alec felt that too. You see, we both knew how desperately we loved each other.” Yet other than her words, what evidence do we have that the passion was mutual?

On the contrary, there is every reason to believe Alec wanted nothing more than a quick fling. He’s always in the lead, always a step ahead of Laura, always sure what she’ll say or do next. The way he wins her heart – and more importantly, the way he extricates himself from the affair – is too smooth, too practiced to believe he’s as much a victim of passion as she is. It would be easier to believe he’s a serial philanderer, looking for sweet-mannered married women vulnerable to his charms, whose sense of propriety will give him a way out at the end. When we consider this possibility, each move begins to look calculated: missing the second date to heighten her longing, falling into the pond to build camaraderie, even telling her of his professional interest in pneumoconiosis to make his supposed escape to Johannesburg, a center of gold mining, more believable. But when he leaves her without looking back, and she attempts suicide, it’s clear that there’s an imbalance in their feelings toward each other.

Brief Encounter - David Lean - Celia Johnson - Trevor Howard - Laura - Alec - lake - boat

There may be no way to prove that Alec duped Laura, but the test of any interpretation is not whether it stands above doubt; rather it’s whether that point of view makes the movie stronger. For one thing our hypothesis justifies the extensive voice-over, which under most circumstances would be a flaw. Allowing a character to tell the story in words is too easy a crutch; it reduces a film from showing to telling – but when the narrator is unreliable, when we have to read between the lines, then the viewer is no longer left passive. If Laura is deceived then we cannot take her narration at face value, and the movie grows in stature because we have to look at the story from her point of view and another at the same time.

Laura and Alec first come together when she catches a bit of coal dust in her eye from a passing express train. The incident allows him to introduce himself as a doctor, and it gives them a moment of physical closeness, but the speck of coal is also a metaphor for the flaw in her vision that will make her vulnerable to Alec. Later, as if to call her vision into question, Alec will twice cause Laura mild embarrassment when she says “I see.” At the restaurant: “I see.” “Do you?” “Do I what?” “Come here every Thursday?” and at the train station: “I see.” “I’m afraid you don’t.” Her real problem, of course, lies in her clouded perception of other people.

Brief Encounter - David Lean - Celia Johnson - Cyril Raymond - Laura - Fred - crossword - newspaper - home - fireplace

If we can accept that Alec never loved Laura, we should not stop there because it’s not likely to leave the rest of the movie unchanged. In fact it prompts an all-important question – If Laura was deceived about Alec, couldn’t she also be wrong about her husband? We’re never told exactly what she thinks of Fred, but if we take her as an unreliable narrator then even his portrait must be filtered through her point of view, cherry-picked to reveal something of her thoughts. We have little cause to fault him – even to Alec she describes him in polite terms, as he does his wife Madeleine – but through her selective vision, and through her response to Alec, we can sense that she’s bored with Fred’s formal manner and his nightly absorption in crossword puzzles. Nevertheless at the end he reveals himself, not only to her but to us. In contrast to Alec, whose attentiveness was so flattering, Fred shows a different attentiveness that’s consistent with genuine love. After Laura had resigned herself to holding her dark secret for life, fearing to hurt her kind husband, he surprises her by showing that he’s intuited everything and accepts her completely. Once we see the fault in Alec, we should also see how thoroughly admirable Fred is.

Now, in retrospect, the obstacle to Laura’s vision, the figurative speck of dust in her eye, looks magnified. The hint of contempt she had felt toward her husband leaks out in other directions. At the pharmacy in Milford she describes “that awful Mrs. Leftwich… wearing one of the silliest hats I’ve ever seen.” In voice-over she speaks of “that idiot of a waitress” and Mary Norton’s “rich over-made-up cousin”, and she’s merciless toward Dolly Messiter, the “gossiping acquaintance” she’s “never particularly cared for” who interrupts her final farewell with Alec, even though the woman proves kind enough to let her sleep on the train and offers to walk her home. Laura and Alec bond over their disdain for the ladies’ orchestra cellist at the restaurant, who also plays organ at the cinema, but when Laura returns alone to the restaurant the woman no longer seems funny: “She looked pathetic, poor thing.” So habitual is her contempt that when she and Alec duck out of the cinema she’s certain that the usherette views them with similar contempt. Given how uncharitable she is to strangers and acquaintances, it wouldn’t be surprising if she reserved some of that contempt deep inside for her own husband.

Brief Encounter - David Lean - Celia Johnson - Laura - pharmacy - Mrs. Leftwich - hat

Brief Encounter opens with an express train rushing through a station. Does this shot merely set the stage, or does it also point to the two express trains that will bracket Laura’s history with Alec – the one that flings coal in her eye to bring them together, and the one that almost kills her when she intends suicide? Both those trains stand for impediments in Laura’s vision: one that makes Alec look attractive, and one that makes her old life with Fred look unbearable. The reality behind both men differs from her perception, and the contrast between Alec and Fred is the structural core of the movie.

One popular interpretation argues that Brief Encounter is a translation of homosexual experience into the socially acceptable terms of bourgeois heterosexual life. Noël Coward, who wrote the story and screenplay, was a famous gay playwright who felt it necessary to keep his sexuality private in mid-century England, and Laura’s situation, having to hide her true feelings while pretending to enjoy normal married life, even to sit alone in a park at night and answer a policeman, is parallel to the secret double lives of so many gays and lesbians. But this interpretation too gains strength when we combine it with a sinister view of Alec. Instead of being merely a call for sympathy, showing how difficult it is to be queer, Brief Encounter becomes a defining argument against the particular wrongs of a system that drives people to closet their sexuality. The exact problem, in England and many other societies, is not as simple as total repression – it’s that homosexuals are limited to passionate flings like Laura’s affair with Alec but denied the potential for intimate love that the stability of marriage offers her and Fred.

Brief Encounter - David Lean - Celia Johnson - Trevor Howard - Laura - Alec - Milford Junction - train station - table

Ultimately the contrast between Alec and Fred is not about morality. It’s about the difference between romance and intimacy, between the excitement of new partners and the cumulative love of long trusting relationships. On this subject the movie tips its hand more than once. When Laura and Alec first go to the cinema there’s a trailer for a movie called Flames of Passion, apparently a jungle fantasy filled with wild animals and rampaging tribal warriors, its title written in fiery letters that make its dramatic intention all too plain. When they return to the cinema Flames of Passion is the main feature, but they walk out early, and Laura says “It was a terribly bad picture.” Even she, presumably, has to admit that there should be more to life than wild passion.

The movie also betrays its view of romance when Fred asks Laura’s help with his crossword. He has to fill a seven-letter blank in a Keats poem, and she guesses it’s “romance”. She must be right, he replies, because the word fits with “delirium” and “Baluchistan”. Laura may find crosswords dull, but they form a truer model for love than the adventure movie she and Alec walked out of – first because crosswords are puzzles: difficult, challenging, requiring knowledge and experience; and second because they fit together words that, like people in a marriage, are set in different directions.

Brief Encounter - David Lean - Celia Johnson - Cyril Raymond - Laura - Fred - home - chair

Brief Encounter‘s music is mainly excerpts from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, a highly romantic piece that complements Laura’s romantic view of love. The concerto recurs many times, highlighting the exalted view of life that she aspires to; but the movie also shows how this lofty romanticism goes hand-in-hand with a kind of snobbery. As Laura puts herself above ordinary people, she also puts herself above ordinary life, leaving her vulnerable to a promise of unsustainable ecstasy that nearly kills her and threatens to destroy her marriage.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Unreliable narrator; framing device

Rebecca – Insight into the psychology of snobbery

Vertigo – Basic question leads to a deeper one: If Laura’s wrong about one man, could she be wrong about the other? / If Judy reminds Scottie of another woman, could Madeleine also remind him of another?

Night Train – Male doctor removes a speck of coal dust from a woman’s eye

Last Year at Marienbad – Plot about a married woman’s romantic affair; question as to whether the husband is as bad as his wife thinks

The Big City – Crossword puzzle as a metaphor

Charulata – Boredom, infidelity, and regret of a bourgeois wife; link between romanticism and snobbery

Gertrud – Married woman torn from her husband by romantic notions

Barry Lyndon – Structured around dual events (express trains, duels) near beginning and end, which are foreshadowed at the very beginning by a third occurrence