Archive for July, 2013


Brief Encounter Part 3

Laura on trainAlthough made by a male director and a male screenwriter, Brief Encounter includes a groundbreaking use of flashbacks as a way to access a woman’s psyche, a new experience for audiences in 1945. Brief Encounter’s flashbacks don’t distance the viewer as in other films but rather bring the viewer into Laura’s mind completely. This component makes the film especially meaningful for women, although there are some instances where Laura’s narrative reliability could be questioned, especially when she possibly overestimates how much other people, especially authority figures, suspect her.

However, there is one scene in Brief Encounter that is a logical flaw in relation to how flashbacks should work. It’s the scene between Alec and his colleague, Dr. Stephen Lynch, whose flat Alec wants to use to be with Laura. When Stephen arrives unexpectedly, Laura leaves through the service exit and therefore, can’t know what Alec and Stephen say after she leaves. All other scenes up to this point have been in her presence.

Next to be discussed will be Brief Encounter’s music, which is very connected to the use of flashbacks. 


Brief Encounter Part 2

This is the second part of a five-part series on Brief Encounter.

Brief Encounter on set

Celia Johnson, David Lean, and Trevor Howard on the set of Brief Encounter

I’m always been fascinated by the different personalities involved in film projects, and Brief Encounter is no exception.

David Lean, the director of Brief Encounter, started his career as an editor in the first sound films. Brief Encounter, an early work, is where he first uses elements (some of which will be explored in future posts) that would show up in his later, more mature works. As previously mentioned in my most recent post, while Lean’s career was on the way up toward the Hollywood epics for which he would become famous, Brief Encounter playwright and screenwriter Noel Coward’s career was on the way down toward a nightly Vegas act. A 2002 British Film Institute Sight and Sound poll, which asked film directors to rank other directors, named him the ninth greatest film director of all time. Lean was nominated for the Best Director Oscar seven times, including for Brief Encounter, and won for Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

Coward created the part of Laura specifically for British film and stage actress Celia Johnson. She had performed in previous Lean films (as well as in other roles on the stage and screen), but “Laura” would become her most famous role. In addition to being nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Brief Encounter, she won BAFTAs (the British Oscar) for her work in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a TV production of Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. She would reunite with her Brief Encounter co-star Trevor Howard for a 1979 television movie.

The unknown Trevor Howard (Alec) was cast in Brief Encounter after Lean saw him in a small role in another film. Howard had a long career, which included The Third Man, co-starring Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles and directed by Carol Reed. He won a BAFTA for his performance in The Key and was nominated for an Oscar before becoming more well-known as a character actor (Superman, Ghandi).

Brief Encounter marked Stanley Holloway’s first major screen role, although he had smaller roles in previous Lean pictures and was a popular comic stage performer. Portraying the working-class train conductor in this film, Holloway was mostly known for Cockney roles, even though he was born into a middle class family. Movie buffs best know him as Eliza Doolittle’s father (a Tony- and Oscar-nominated role) in the Broadway, West End, and film versions of My Fair Lady.

My next blog post in this series will concentrate on Lean’s use of flashbacks in Brief Encounter.


Brief Encounter Part 1

Thanks to the members of my DVD discussion group, for whom I initially prepared these notes. For more information about and exploration of Brief Encounter, I recommend the Criterion DVD’s audio commentary with film historian Bruce Eder and the British Film Institute’s monograph by film professor Richard Dyer. If you’re not familiar with the basic premise of Brief Encounter, here’s the version: Meeting a stranger in a railway station, a woman is tempted to cheat on her husband. 

BriefEncounterPosterThe 1945 British film, Brief Encounter, is probably on many women’s (and gay men’s) top-ten romantic movie list. However, to call it a “chick flick” would be to underestimate how groundbreaking it was for audiences then and the impact is still has on audiences now.

Directed by David Lean, with a screenplay by Noel Coward**, Brief Encounter is based on a 1936 one-act play by Coward called Still Life. Although the play is confined to a refreshment room in a railway station, the film opens itself up to more locations, characters, and plot points. Brief Encounter would mark Lean and Coward’s third and last collaboration. While Lean’s career would bloom with his more famous 1950s and 1960s epics (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai), as time went on, Coward would be forced to accept gigs in Vegas to bring in money.

Brief Encounter’s plot revolves heavily around trains and train schedules. Much of the film was shot in a railway station in Lancashire, England, far from major cities that were still subject to World War II blackouts.

Brief Encounter was a moderate success upon its release, especially in art houses. However, it was banned in Ireland because it supposedly portrayed an adulterer in a sympathetic light. The film shared the 1946 Palme d’Or with 10 other films at the Cannes Film Festival. Celia Johnson (Laura) won a Best Actress Oscar, while David Lean earned his first Oscar nomination as Best Director. In a 1999 poll, the British Film Institute would name Brief Encounter number two of the top 100 British films.

I anticipate this to be a five-part series. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will explore Brief Encounter’s director and actors.


**In his BFI monograph, Richard Dyer compares the situation of the film’s hidden lovers to the plight of gay men at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the U.K. Noel Coward happened to be gay, so this parallel is plausible.