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Brief Encounter Part 5

Stanley Holloway as Albert and Joyce Carey as Myrtle in Brief Encounter

Stanley Holloway as Albert and Joyce Carey as Myrtle in Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter is an exploration of the repression of the British middle class. Words that keep coming up in dialogue between Laura and other characters as well as in Laura’s voiceover include “ordinary,” “uncomplicated,” and “sensible,” which emphasizes the normalcy and boredom of Laura’s everyday routine. Director David Lean’s use of actual locations and actress Celia Johnson’s natural appearance and acting style add to the cinematic realism of some of the scenes; scenes, such as in the rowboat, look as if they could be taken straight from a home movie, which also adds a level of nostalgic romanticism. And Laura’s life seems to be mundane until Alec enters the picture and disrupts her routine and repressed emotions.

Albert and Myrtle are the comic, working class foils to Alec and Laura. Albert and Myrtle’s earthier, more overt expressions of affection directly contrast Alec and Laura’s more subtle, repressed romance. In addition to adding humor to an otherwise serious movie, it seems that Lean and Coward are also advocating Albert and Myrtle’s outlook.

Before its official release, Brief Encounter had a bad preview in front of a working class audience; the audience members just couldn’t understand Laura and Alec’s repression, and some shouted at the screen for them to go ahead and kiss. (For more discussion about working class reaction to the film, see Neel14’s astute comment of my previous blog post, “Brief Encounter Part 2”.) Lean took this rejection personally and subsequently considered the film a failure. History has shown us otherwise.


Brief Encounter Part 4

sheet musicBrief Encounter screenwriter Noel Coward chose Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” for the film’s soundtrack. The piece experienced a surge in popularity after the film’s release.

The concerto not only provides actual ambient music from the living room radio during Laura’s flashbacks but also punctuates the flashbacks. This was groundbreaking use of classical music in a non-musical setting as a dramatic device. It was also groundbreaking in that the film uses the music as more that just unobtrusive background music; it actually becomes part of the viewer’s primary level of consciousness, signaling (alongside the flashback structure) that what we are seeing is through Laura’s eyes. The music as a window into Laura’s soul is further emphasized by the fact that although the concerto was written by a man and chosen for the film by a man, it is played on the soundtrack by a female pianist named Eileen Joyce.


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.


When My John Cusack Bubble Burst

John Cusack in Say Anything

John Cusack in Say Anything

Can I just say that John Cusack is wonderful? He’s handsome, intelligent, and witty. He may be older and more worn, but I don’t care. His Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything is the watermark for many a girl’s future boyfriends and husbands. Say Anything director Cameron Crowe has said that Lloyd is such a memorable character because he approaches “optimism as a revolutionary act.” In addition to the obvious examples of this statement (Say Anything, High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank), this defining aspect of Cusack’s characters is primarily what makes (for me) otherwise implausible movie plots work, from the sublime (Serendipity, Hot Tub Time Machine) to the ridiculous (Con Air, 2012, Identity, 1408).

Cusack also makes bold choices when playing characters who have a harder time finding hope and optimism in life (The Raven, Being John Malkovich, Grace is Gone). However, I watched a film this past weekend, which challenged what I expect a) from Cusack as an actor and b) from his mere presence positively impacting my perspective on an otherwise mediocre film.

That film was The Paperboy. Let’s say it wasn’t boring. It was difficult to watch in the worse sense. The Paperboy was like bad Tennessee Williams that doesn’t even have the decency to be entertaining or good-bad. The actors, who were A-list (Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron in over this head), tried their best, even though their various takes on Southern accents were laughable. It was all just so over-the-top, and John Cusack couldn’t save this one for me.

John Cusack in The Paperboy

John Cusack in The Paperboy

Cusack plays a man in prison named Hillary van Wetter, convicted for a murder he might not have committed. SPOILER ALERT: By the end of the film, Cusack’s character, a rough redneck in bad clothes with bad hair and a bad accent, has been exonerated and released from prison; he quickly sets about committing rape and murder. Maybe I’m being naïve and experiencing some cognitive dissonance with Cusack the person (persona?) versus Hillary the character, which has negatively influenced my thoughts on the movie as a whole. Or maybe it was just bad.

One of Cusack’s next projects is playing Richard Nixon in The Butler. I hope I’m ready for that!


Rhapsody in Blue in Baz Luhrman’s Great Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio's star appearance in The Great Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio’s star entrance in The Great Gatsby

Although a good deal of the most recent Great Gatsby’s soundtrack is comprised of contemporary hip hop and pop, there is a breathtaking moment in the film in which director Baz Luhrman uses George Gershwin’s 1924 jazz-classical music composition, Rhapsody in Blue, almost as memorably as Woody Allen did in his film, Manhattan. Allen opens Manhattan with black-and-white shots of the city accompanied by Rhapsody in Blue, making the city itself as vital a character in the film as Allen and Mariel Hemingway.

About 30 minutes into The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the novel’s and film’s narrator, played by Tobey Maguire, attends one of Jay Gatsby’s infamous parties at his palatial estate on Long Island. Anyone who is anyone is not only there but, with the exception of Nick, uninvited. And who would know they are party crashers anyway since the enigmatic host himself never appears at his own parties?

As the soundtrack’s hip hop keeps pounding, Nick strikes up a conversation with a man whose face avoids the camera. We know who it is, but we go with it because the pay-off will probably be worth it. Nick starts naming all the crazy rumors circulating about Gatsby to this hidden man. And then, as the familiar strains of Rhapsody in Blue take over, Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, surrounded by fireworks and holding a glass of champagne, turns to face Nick (and since we are privy to Nick’s point of view, he is also facing us, breaking the fourth wall) and nods in acknowledgment of his now-revealed identity. In concert with Luhrman’s use of lighting, camera placement, and narrative POV, this deliberate use of the Jazz Age anthem says as much about Leo’s big first entrance and star power as it does about the impact of Gatsby’s surprise appearance.

Rhapsody in Blue, a piece often associated with New York City, had its premiere at New York’s Aeolian Hall two years after the novel, The Great Gatsby, takes place. In 1931, George Gershwin described composing the piece on a train ride to Boston as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” Luhrman successfully incorporates Rhapsody in Blue to explore the themes, moods, and characters of The Great Gatsby, although Gershwin’s purposes were apparently more universal, moving beyond the confines of New York and its upper crust.