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Brief Encounter (1945)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Brief Encounter (1945)
35mm, black and white, 86 mins
DirectorDavid Lean
Production CompanyCineguild
ProducerNoël Coward
ScreenplayNoël Coward, David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan
Original playletNoël Coward
Director of PhotographyRobert Krasker
Music ExtractsSergei Rachmaninov

Cast: Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson); Trevor Howard (Dr. Alec Harvey); Stanley Holloway (Albert Godby); Joyce Carey (Myrtle Bagot); Cyril Raymond (Fred Jesson)

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A provincial housewife and a married doctor meet at a railway station and subsequently fall in love.

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David Lean's third Noël Coward adaptation for Cineguild has become one of the most popular romantic British films of all time, regularly appearing on lists of 'best films'. The story of unconsummated middle-class adultery began life as a one-act play, Still Life, in the compilation Tonight at 8.30.

The film is a small masterpiece of construction. According to Kevin Brownlow's biography of Lean, it was the director's idea to start the film at the end of the story, and then recount earlier events in flashback before revisiting the first scene, now expanded and made all the more poignant by what the audience knows. Laura herself tells the story, as though to her dull but kindly husband Fred, although he never actually hears her voice-over confessions.

It is with this film that Lean announces himself as a poet of the cinema, using the imagery of shadowy subway passages and platforms lit by sudden bursts of harsh light from passing trains to convey the atmosphere of Alec and Laura's illicit liaison. The small town locations (actually Beaconsfield, near to Denham where most of the film was shot) are beautifully used, both to suggest Laura's real world and how her love for Alec makes her see familiar surroundings in a new light.

The acting of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard (in his first starring role) is impeccable and very moving, even if their much-parodied refined RADA pronunciation can sound amusing to modern ears. The characters' moral attitudes may also seem light years away from modern sensibilities. (The story is actually set just before the Second World War and the sociological changes which that brought). This does not detract from the performances, helped enormously by the use of the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto (a composer rejected by Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit as "too florid"). The film begins with the opening bars of the concerto's first movement, and ends with the closing bars of the third and final movement.

Coward's customary condescension towards his working-class characters - Stanley Holloway's decent stationmaster and Joyce Cary's genteel buffet manageress - grates, but their teasing flirtation across the rock cakes is an effective and necessary comic counterpoint to the romantic intensity of Alec and Laura's growing infatuation.

Janet Moat

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Video Clips
1. In the café (3:08)
2. Falling in love (3:24)
3. In the flat (3:44)
Original Poster
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Staying On (1980)
Carey, Joyce (1898-1993)
Coward, Noël (1899-1973)
Handl, Irene (1901-1987)
Harris, Jack (1905-1971)
Holloway, Stanley (1890-1982)
Howard, Trevor (1913-1988)
Johnson, Dame Celia (1908-1982)
Krasker, Robert (1913-1981)
Lean, David (1908-1991)
Neame, Ronald (1911-2010)
Cineguild Productions
The Romance of Steam