Ranking: #54/111

Director: David Lean (Britain)

Genre: Romance Drama

David Lean’s Brief Encounter is a poignant, timeless love story that seems so genuine and so human it hurts just to watch it. Such tonal and emotional brilliance is rare in romance dramas on the Big Screen.  

Like many great movies, it’s based on a substantial script, this time from the pen of Noël Coward.  Lean uses all the expressive means cinema has at its disposal to transform the screenplay, adapted from Coward’s play Still Life, into a living film.

The black-and-white photography, with lots of use of greys in addition to more foreboding images in sharpened contrast between black and white, light and shadow, is moody. The dark shadows at night at the train station, which is the central locale of the story, add to the atmosphere, with its vague sense of foreboding. This is where the two main characters in this romantic drama meet and the setting of the busy station, with its non-stop comings and goings, suggests to me that there is something almost random about their ill-fated affair from the start. 

As in all Lean’s films, the soundscape and imagery are powerfully matched. The station comes alive through its sounds as well as through the dynamic shots. I especially appreciated the symbol of the incoming train in the opening shot which suggests the transience of life and of events in one’s life. This idea of transience is referenced in the film’s title, too.

The film takes us back to Britain in the 1940s before World War 2. Laura Jesson, a shy, ordinary middle-class woman in a respectful, but dull, marriage, has a chance meeting with a married man, Dr Alec Harvey, a general practitioner. They are attracted to each other but initially maintain their distance. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard give superbly controlled performances in the two lead roles.

Laura’s life gradually becomes more emotionally complicated as she falls in love with Alec. Lean uses lots of close-ups of her face and we see her becoming more and more mixed up. She literally acts with her eyes in a stunning performance. She conveys the excitement of being in love as well as her subliminal guilt. We see signs, too, of the growing uncertainty and anxiety about the future (“living on the edge of a precipice”). The happiness they enjoy in being together, as their friendship grows, is intermingled with a range of more troubling emotions.

Their outings and times together are convincingly depicted, with the usual attention you always get in a Lean movie to the details that make up each setting. And the railway refreshment room is such a robust, lively setting, replete with some interesting minor characters who add additional colour and life to this very human drama.

Their affair is shown to be so real, so ordinary and so plausible. Through Lean’s exquisite camera work and through credible and subtle acting by Johnson and Howard, the viewer cannot help but to be drawn into accompanying the pair on their star-crossed journey of love.

Slowly, painfully, it dawns on the couple that a future together will not work. It would ruin both their families. They agree to end the relationship. Alec decides to take up a job offer in Johannesburg, South Africa, where his brother lives.

Their final meeting before he leaves is poignant and understated.

Afterwards, Laura is suddenly so overwhelmed by all the conflicting emotions raging within her that she runs out onto the platform as an express train approaches. Without a word being spoken, Celia Johnson conveys Laura’s terrible inner conflict to the full, as the train’s lights flash across her face, showing her overcoming the dark impulse to commit suicide by throwing herself in front of the oncoming train. This whole sequence of their parting is one of the deepest love scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.

Having chosen life, a heartbroken, but resolute, Laura then returns home to her kind, thoughtful husband and family.