The Rear-View Mirror: Brief Encounter (1945)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

David Lean is best known for movies that were anything but lean. Lawrence of Arabia, his longest feature, clocks in at 3 hours and 48 minutes, and Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India are significantly longer than your two-hour standard feature. These movies, however, are from the second half of his career; from 1940 until 1955, he was perfectly able to keep it brief, bringing in two Dickens novels (Great Expectations in 1946 and Oliver Twist in 1948) in well under two hours. He was an editor on much more movies than he was a director, so he knew how long a story had to be in order to be told well.

And there is Brief Encounter (1945), a bittersweet, unexpected 83-minute treat in black and white, a sort of sped-up love story between two married people who begin to fancy each other. Romance is in the air, but there are moral considerations, maybe more so on the side of the lady, Laura Jesson, a mother of two, married to a lovable but forgettable lug named Fred. The movie is Laura’s internal monologue directed to her husband who must never know what his wife was up to for a number of Tuesday afternoons. Because it’s her telling the story, she is inevitably the protagonist, which must have been an exception back in 1947.

Laura is played by Celia Johnson, an actor who was known for her comedic roles, and while there are some jokes in the movie, she seems an excellent fit for drama, too. The man she falls for is Alec Harvey, a doctor with an infectious enthusiasm for his profession. I don’t think that there is another couple who ever fell in love over talk of silicosis, but I pride myself of having an open mind. Harvey is played by Trevor Howard, who also does a great job, but he seemed to struggle with the screenplay: he thought that, since Laura and him find themselves in the flat of a friend, things would take a physical turn, but the movie avoids such a scene. The movie is better for it.

Brief Encounter is a love story distilled to its essentials: the meet cute, the getting to know each other, the stolen afternoons, the realization, the sobering up, the decision, the end. Brief Encounter has all of this, and does it effortlessly. Based on a play by Noel Coward, it’s not a downtrodden trot through a moralistic swamp, but a well-made, if somewhat soppy, drama. It was 1945, and people probably needed some big feelings, but if you look at the movie sideways, you can see the drama as well as the comedy.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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