When it's dandy, the world is a rosier place, and everybody you meet seems energised and enriched by your good fortune and happiness. But when everything's up in the air, and your life is in turmoil, and you feel sick and ecstatic, jabbering like an idiot or walking around in a coma, the universe seems too cruel to bear.
Look at Johnson's face - as bright and wide and secret as the moon - and you see traces of the pain and confusion that has marked every love affair in your life. As Laura Jesson, the unassuming housewife who "didn't think such violent things could happen to ordinary people", she is pristine, impeccably poised, evoking the most complex emotions with those simple, blank, distant eyes. You want to shake her out of distraction, because you've been there.
Johnson is the core of the film; the chaos of her predicament orbits about her. What is her problem? Well, she's in love - in case you hadn't guessed - with a doctor (Trevor Howard) who rushes to her assistance when a passing express train leaves a speck of grit in her eye. They pass each other again, in town, on their errands. They find themselves sitting down to lunch at the same table, giggling together like schoolchildren at the grotesque cafe orchestra, visiting the pictures together for some trashy matinee.
He seems a model of reserve and restraint compared to the flurry of contradictions invading Johnson's heart. Until, that is, he needs to see her again, and you hear the longing and desire in his simple repetition: "Please...please". In a matter of hours, they have become slaves to each other, and there is nothing that they can do about it.
Noel Coward's screenplay has a keen ear for the ironies and absurdities of everyday speech, and he juggles a handful of comic characters, played by Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey and Everley Gregg, quite efficiently. His compassion for the bewildered lovers is the thing which really lodges under the skin.
Rendered in lingering detail by Lean's fluid direction, the picture has become the classic love story by which all others are judged. If you are currently falling painfully out of love, or are being reeled in, agonisingly, then parts of it will jolt you. It's got love's glory and soreness fingered.
Celia Johnson "This can't last", she gasps to herself as Trevor Howard vanishes from her life. "This misery can't last." The magic of her performance is in the way she suggests a matrix of confused emotion behind that cool, so-English exterior (she got an Oscar nomination for Brief Encounter). She has a confident grasp of the lovely patter of Noel Coward's writing, and she had parts in two other films of his work - In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1944). Celia Johnson died in 1982, a Dame, 13 years after her acclaimed final performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Trevor Howard This film came very early in Howard's career - just a year in, actually. He couldn't have hoped for a better springboard. He had his share of romantic roles which harked back to his portrayal of the elegant doctor Alec Harvey in Lean's film, but there were swashbucklers and character roles ahead too. He earned an Oscar nomination for Sons and Lovers (1960), and acted in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), where he played Captain Bligh, and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Ryan's Daughter (1970), Pope Joan (1972), Sidney Lumet's unnerving The Offence (1973).
Stanley Holloway Holloway's role in Brief Encounter capitalised on his music-hall background (he'd been waist-deep in theatre work since 1919) and was jolly, a nice counterpoint to the love story's intensity. He played Alfred Doolittle in the stage version of My Fair Lady, and was Oscar-nominated when he reprised the role on film. He had some great Ealing moments -Passport to Pimlico (1950), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) - but spent the early 1970s trifling around in Flight of the Doves (1971) and Up the Front (1972), after writing an autobiography, Wiv' a Little Bit of Luck (1969).
David Lean Lean is best known for his enormous, panoramic epics - films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) - but many still maintain that his more modest character studies were the most pertinent. He began as an editor, then went into a run of bringing Coward to the screen - In Which We Serve (1942), which he co-directed with Coward, This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter (both 1945). Next came some fine mid-size projects - Oliver Twist (1948),
Hobson's Choice (1954) - which preceded the blockbusters.
Noel Coward The playwright, novelist, musician and professional parched wit found a sweet little niche in cinema. As well as his work with Lean, which was pungent and pleasurable, he had a number of plays - Cavalcade, Bitter Sweet, Design for Living (all 1933) - adapted for the screen. He had a sideline in acting, too- that was the bait which first drew him to cinema, for two minor parts in DW Griffith's Hearts of the World (1918). He appeared in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Our Man in Havana (1960), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) and as a suave gangster living it up in jail in The Italian Job (1969).
Robert Krasker Krasker's photography in Brief Encounter verges on the hallucinatory - those crisp scenes between Johnson and Howard are intercut with the ghostly images conjured up at the railway station, and the contrast is gorgeous. Strange to think that the man responsible for such quintessentially English images was in fact an Australian. Krasker also shot Dangerous Moonlight (1940) as well as Laurence Olivier's famous hyper-stylised wartime Henry V (1944). But his real moment of glory was Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), pictured above, for which he deservedly won an Oscar.
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