Brief Encounter is woven through and through with loss, sadness, the stifling of desire, the structuration of forces of repression — the state, the police, the institution of marriage: all that is so beautifully expressed in the scene where we see Laura (Celia Johnson) going to have a smoke under the the War Memorial, the park bench still wet from the rain, after her failed attempt at the assignation with Alec (Trevor Howard) that had exercised her so — interpellated as personal lacks and individual moral failings.
It was only on my last viewing that it became clear how the film is actually structured around the moment of loss, a moment which bookends the film, and which we first see narrated objectively and then come back to subjectively at the film’s end (and Catherine Grant’s marvellous video essay, Dissolves of Passion, take on an even richer resonance when seen through the lens of loss, of Dolly Messiter robbing the couple of their last minutes but also the loss of a love that is desired but cannot be).
The film begins to tell us a story, one that doesn’t start of as but then becomes Laura’s story told in flashback, and the end returns us to to the beginning but now fleshed out as Laura subjectively experiences– and by this I mean something different than told through her point of view — those last moments with Alec, the loss, the despair, the world infringing on and robbing her of that which is so important to her but which she cannot speak of, except to us, the audience.
As we can see in the clip above, the film begins with a train, engine steaming streams of smoke, heading towards us and slicing through the frame. We then begin with a medium close-up of Mr. Godby (Stanley Holloway). The camera cuts to passing trains once again, before again picking up Mr. Godby, crossing the track on foot. Why begin here and with Mr. Godby? Clearly the passing trains, the platform where people linger only momentarily before heading elsewhere, the steam; all help create an emotional as well as physical setting for the drama that will be played out. But look also at the formal elegance, at the beauty of the compositions. This dangerous speed, the transient and furtive meetings, the steaming desire the film will dramatise, all will be contained by the same order, hierarchy, symmetry, the elegant manner that also characterise framing and composition (and in a different way, Mr. Godby’s uniform).
I was struck also by how in the shot in the station café, the focus is entirely on Mr. Godby and Mrs. Bagot (Joyce Carey), flirting away, in their own way negotiating and making possible the fulfilment of the desires denied the more middle class Lauras and Alecs. You might note that the camera pans from Mr. Godby and Mrs Bagot to Laura and Alec, that significantly they remain at a distance. We don’t yet know who they are and we don’t yet hear a word they say. Mr. Godby’s voice is still carrying, now off-screeen, now speaking of police, whilst the camera lingers at a distance is on this new couple we will later get to know so well. So from the very first images, we get speed, steam, the sense of transit and indeterminacy but also of order and containment, all whilst being brought to notice regarding forces of repression. And the film tells us this whilst making a homology between two couples characterised as belonging to two different classes, one the servants; the other those being served, even if only in a cafe.
I will write about the two ways we’re shown Dolly Messiter’s intrusion into the last moments the couple have together –the one objective at the beginning, the other subjectively near the end — in my next post.
PS at the end of Altman (d: Ron Mann, USA, 2014), a wonderful documentary on the filmmaker, his wife Kathryn recounts how how watching Brief Encounter inspired Altman’s filmmaking, ‘one day, years and years ago, just after the war, Bob had nothing to do and he went to a theatre in the middle of the afternoon to see a movie. Not a Hollywood movie, a British movie.He said the main character wasn’t glamorous, not a babe. And at first he wondered why he was even watching it. But twenty minutes later he was in tears and had fallen in love with her. And it made him feel that it wasn’t just a movie.
A film that any aspiring filmmaker should see. You want to know how to make a fine film with only one actor in one set? See what Steven Knight and Tom Hardy do with Locke.
Ivan Locke is a construction manager wrapping up work for the day. Tomorrow will be the apotheosis of his career, the biggest cement pour outside of that undertaken by government or the military in history. He’s in his car on his way home. His wife is making sausages and wearing the team shirt. His kids are all excited about the big game that they’re all about to see. But he won’t be there. On his way home, he gets a phone call that will change his life. At the end of his car journey, he will have lost his wife, his home, his job and his children. But he will have made sure the cement job gets done properly and he will have done the right thing. Plus, knowing Ivan Locke as we’ve come to know him on this journey, it’s hard to believe that he won’t return home tomorrow and win back all he’s lost.
The film is like a Hawkesian tale in which professionalism is indistinguishable from morality. Locke has to make sure the cement job gets done right and he also has to do the ‘right’ thing no matter what the cost to himself and those near him. He’s almost autistic in his attention to detail and he can’t lie. It’s an iconic role. If Hardy weren’t already a star, this role and his performance of it, would surely make him one. The character is bound to become iconic and a cultural reference point. Who wouldn’t want to be like Locke, slowly, methodically, systematically, humanely trying to answer everyone’s queries, solving everyone’s problems, being kind but truthful, trying to move resolve issues even as he knows that solving another’s problems is a move forward for another and a step backward and into the unknown to himself. Hardy is very moving, the changing tonalities of his voice in that gentle Welsh tone he adapts a mini-masterpiece of emoting.
The film is in the tradition of those tour-de-force theatre pieces like Cocteau’s La voix humaine where a woman breaks up with a lover over the telephone and the whole play is one long monologue. Except here it’s a man talking, sometimes to his absent father, about what it is to be a man. And you do get to hear other voices at the end of the line, all wanting something. This is a tour-de-force performance for Hardy, who gets to act out practically every emotion going whist in the service of a character who must remain calm, stoic, methodical. Because, it’s a one-character piece in one set, the dialogue here also has to bear the brunt of exposition that in an ordinary film would be spread amongst other aspects of mise-en-scene. This is of course an opportunity for the director and cinematographer, how to make the visuals interesting and expressive whilst remaining locked in one car. They succeed. Haris Zambarloukos does a fabulous job with the cinematography. We get neon colours at night, reflections of reflections depending on Locke’s state of mind, frames within frames, sometimes one a direct image, the other but a shadowy reflection of one, the softening of fog, the sharpening of focus, multi-coloured indicators in the night. What starts off as a long journey into night ends up as a cantering journey into clarity, purposefulness, decisiveness. This is why the film is so pleasurable to watch. Locke is very moving, very fine. But it is perhaps also why it is no more than that. Hardy, however, is nothing less than great.
PS Brummies might note with pleasure that in the film, the construction site in which the cement pour is to take place was the construction site of what is now The Cube.
Addendum: In his recent How to Watch a Movie (London: Profile Books, 2015), David Thomson notes that Locke is the film that established Tom Hardy as a major figure and that, ‘No film I’ve seen in recent years is more eloquent on where we are now, and on how alone we feel. There is nothing left to do but watch and listen’ (p. 41).