Home Video Hovel: Brief Encounter, by David Bax
Maybe this will out me as a hopeless romantic but I have no use for porn that doesn’t have a story. People fucking out of context? What am I supposed to be invested in there? Like with any other narrative art form, it’s the identifiable, relatable traits and motivations that allow us surrogacy and empathy with the characters. So important, in fact, are those elements that, as a movie like David Lean’s Brief Encounter demonstrates, you don’t actually have to include any sex to be effective.
Celia Johnson stars as Laura Jesson, a British suburban housewife in 1945 who makes one trip by train into town every week for groceries and other errands. It’s on the way home from one such excursion that she meets Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) who helps her clear a piece of dirt out of her eye (Note: This is one of the sexiest scenes in the history of cinema). Soon, the two are meeting on each of Laura’s visits, having lunch and seeing movies, all ostensibly in the name of innocent friendship. As time goes on, though, neither can deny that something more is developing. But, both being married and proper members of society, they are reluctant to do anything about it.
Brief Encounter is adapted from a one-act play by Noël Coward and his droll and talkative stamp remains. Writers like Coward, from William Shakespeare to Richard Linklater, have shown us the sensuality of banter, how it can stimulate the intellect in more ways than one. Whether it’s Laura and Alec eloquently pleading to be forgiven by one another for having ever met in the first place or it’s the barmaid and the ticket collector at the train station watering hole coarsely teasing each other, dialogue is foreplay in Brief Encounter.
Of course, all of that conversation wouldn’t amount to much without the right actors to execute it. Johnson and Howard maintain a sharp composure while longing for each other so much it’s dissolving them, their upper lips stiff while their lower ones are trembling. Joyce Carey and Stanley Holloway, as the aforementioned train station employees, crackle with humorous energy, keeping their exchanges from crossing the line from suggestive to crude. And, in a smaller but crucial role, Cyril Raymond is quietly heartbreaking and stirring as Laura’s oblivious husband who may not be so oblivious as he seems. He gets the film’s final line and, in that instant, makes you wonder if maybe Brief Encounter is actually two love stories, both profound, no sex needed.
The 4K restoration is sublime, revealing the surprising importance of, in a sense, color in Robert Krasker’s tactile black and white cinematography.
Special features include a commentary by Bruce Eder, an interview with a Noël Coward scholar, a short making-of documentary, a television special about David Lean and an essay by Kevin Brownlow.