Saturday, February 16, 2008

Target #188: Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean)

TSPDT ranking: #143
Directed by: David Lean
Written by: Noel Coward (play) (uncredited), Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame (all uncredited)
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg, Marjorie Mars

My fourth film from David Lean is yet further proof – after the expressionistically atmospheric Oliver Twist (1948) – that the director is every bit as talented when he's not creating sweeping widescreen Technicolor epics. A glance at the brief plot outline for Brief Encounter (1945) didn't exactly catch my interest, but the deceptively-simple story is handled so masterfully that my attention never waned. Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is a happily-married housewife with two young children. For the duration of her marriage, she has remained dutifully loyal and absolutely content with her current situation; her husband, Fred (Cyril Raymond), is a plain and somewhat uninteresting man, but he loves her very much, and that's what matters most. Laura's tale unfolds in flashback, as she imagines recounting to her husband the emotional events of past weeks, as she came to fall in love with a charismatic married doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). Following several chance meetings, as though fate were pushing them together, Laura and Alec begin their brief romantic liaison, despite the obvious immorality of their actions and the knowledge that their time together is devastatingly limited.

In the early period of his directing career, Lean collaborated with producer/writer Noel Coward on four occasions, and Brief Encounter is the result of their final partnership. The story was expanded from Coward's one-act place, "Still Life (1936)," and adapted by Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame and Lean himself. In a refreshing change from most romantic pictures, Brief Encounter depicts love as a frustrating, tormenting and even violent emotion; though Laura is at first enchanted by her affection for the handsome Alec, the guilt caused by her disloyalty threatens to destroy her emotionally, and the bitter fact that her love is ultimately doomed leads her almost to suicide. Robert Krasker's cinematography is beautifully moody, often using locomotive smoke {multiple pivotal scenes take place at a train station} as an effective aesthetic device. Some have noted the film's apparent ties to the film noir genre, with Lean choosing to shoot much of the film in rain-slicked streets, dimly-lit interiors and unglamorous industrialised train stations; the film's conclusion notes the futility of love, and its tragic, detrimental effect on comfortable family relationships.

More than anything else, Brief Encounter is an exploration of family morality. There's no doubt that Laura loves her husband, but her life with him is so tedious and unstimulating that her weekly shopping journeys into London are all that keep her functioning. Laura's romantic liaison with Alec fills her with an unbridled joy, an emotion that so overwhelms her that it is not until hours later that the ethical implications of her actions finally strike home. The devastating moment when she first finds herself lying to her husband, a minor but all-important detail, is one of the film's most powerful moments, more so when Laura later muses: "It's awfully easy to lie when you know you're trusted implicitly." With its sympathetic attitude towards marital infidelity, a film such as Brief Encounter could never have been made in Hollywood. The Production Code {a.k.a. the Hays Code} strictly prohibited the portrayal of adulterous relationships that were "explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively." Nevertheless, the film was David Lean's greatest critical success to date, and his film was nominated for three Academy Awards {Best Actress, Best Director, Best Writing}, in addition to tying for the Grand Prize of the Cannes Film Festival.

Currently my #2 film of 1945:
1) The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder)
2) Brief Encounter (David Lean)
3) 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)

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