short film reviews, criticism, and occasional musing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Brief Encounter (1945, UK)

I’ve long had a weakness for epics, and so I’m no stranger to the films of David Lean. However, until now I hadn’t seen any of his work prior to the late 50’s/early 60’s. Brief Encounter isn’t really epic in the way that Lawrence of Arabia or A Passage to India are, unless you consider it to be a strictly emotional epic. One night at a train station, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) meet, and then meet again by chance the following week. Their affair is framed and told in Laura’s imagination as she strives to make sense of the few weeks the two spent together.

To be frank, I loved Brief Encounter. It’s a perfectly pitched film – every part rings true, from the hemmed-in interiors that Laura and Alec inhabit, to the mirrored affair between two train station employees and the perfectly neat and circular narrative. Lean can’t be thanked for all of this, of course, but Encounter might be the culmination of his partnership with Noel Coward, and it’s Coward’s snarky wit that pops up now and again to break the emotional and structural tension.

The affair itself is poignant in its very ordinariness. Laura and Alec are quite obviously in the throes of a middle-age crisis, vaguely dissatisfied with their lives of routine (one of my favorite bits has Laura remarking on her appreciation for the subtle charms of the pharmacist’s shop), though Laura’s motives are more obvious than Alec’s. He seems to me to be something of a slippery character, and I can’t quite decide if his motives are pure and his impulsiveness just the mark of a classic rusher-inner, or if he actually might be something of a cad. All the same, their escape into one another provides the perfect counterpoint to dull lives and uninspiring futures, no matter how quickly the whole thing plays out.

Just an FYI for anyone in Chicago – the Siskel Center is doing a two-month Lean retrospective, and if you haven’t seen some of the later films (particularly Lawrence) on the big screen, take the opportunity. Seeing it at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles a few years ago was something of a transformative experience, though I must have seen it at least three or four times before that. The Siskel screen may not be as impressive, but it certainly beats whatever size television you might have.


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