David Lean

A Note on Brief Encounter (David Lean, UK, 1945)

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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.

José Arroyo