For Valentine's Day a romantic choice is required, and for me it's a close run thing between Casablanca and Brief Encounter, but as we've got a David Lean centenary coming up, I'll plump for Brief Encounter, and leave Casablanca for another time.Back in 1945, David Lean was a relatively unknown but hard-working film-maker with a limited amount of high acclaim in British films. Britain was also rather different in 1945, especially the period just before the war, which this marvellous film ostensibly deals with.
Its setting may be old and antiquated, but its themes are universal, no matter what the time or the place, which in this case was austere Middle Class England, and though undoubtedly set in the South (just listen to awll theuse stiff upper lip accents), its main location was actually in the North of England, at Carnforth in Lancashire, because its railway station had a long enough platform with an underground ramp exit, and a station clock. It was this railway station (combined with Watford Junction because it had lots more fast trains) that gives Brief Encounter its distinctive atmosphere.
The cast was exemplary. Celia Johnson was an old pal of Noel Coward's, and at the time a regular in David Lean's early films as a director. She was the matriarchal figure in This Happy Breed, and an excellent and moving Captain's wife (to Noel Coward's Captain) in the very successful In Which We Serve. Come the time of Brief Encounter therefore, there was one obvious choice as to who should play Laura.
As for the part of the handsome doctor Alec, a new actor had just arrived to films named Trevor Howard (who had appeared in Rep at the Colchester Theatre Royal among others), and who had just the right sort of handsome dignity that British cinema liked back in the 1940s. He may not be today's idea of a matinee idol, but at the time his following became huge after this film established him as a romantic lead. What a shame that in later years his career spiralled into a series of red-faced, over the top characters, when his thoughtful subtlety was so much more compelling.
The Master himself, Noel Coward, adapted his own play Still Life brilliantly - set originally in just the station buffet - elaborating the restrained but passionate love affair that begins in the most mundane of circumstances: a piece of grit caught under the eye - a common danger on steam railways in those days. Although the show belongs to the two principals, there are those who also get their scenes of fun in between, such as Stanley Holloway as the station master flirting with Joyce Carey as the lady behind the bar.
Cyril Raymond as Laura's husband is among the characters added to the film adaptation (only referred to by name in the play), and is suitably staid and respectable, and blissfully ignorant of his wife's affair, until perhaps at the end, when he has the most moving line of the film: he has an inkling that Laura is a little saddened by something, so he leans down toward her and says: "thank you for coming back."
One jolting moment just prior to that, is the climactic reprise of the beginning of the film, when Alec has just left Laura at the station buffet, only this time seen from the perspective of the tormented Laura. In a fit of madness, she hears a train whistle, and the camera swerves towards her unnervingly, as she contemplates falling in front of the train - and only just stops herself from doing so at the last moment.
On its own Brief Encounter is not a classic because of Celia Johnson, or Trevor Howard, or Rachmaninov, or even its trains or the young whipper-snapper David Lean, but a combination of all five. And somehow romance is always more compelling when the lovers are prevented from consummating their unrequited love.
The recent stage presentation of Brief Encounter, at the same cinema in Haymarket where it was first shown in the 1940s. No mention of David Lean on the billboard.