David Leanís Brief Encounter is a small gem of a movie Ė neat, compact, and nearly flawless. Running all of 86 minutes, it manages to recreate the inner life of Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a suburban housewife who falls in love with another man (Trevor Howard) despite her better judgement. By todayís cynical standards, Brief Encounter feels hopelessly simplistic. The lovers meet innocently, proclaim their love, and then part. But like grandparents who surprise us with their unrequited passion, it moves us in unexpected ways. Brief Encounter is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, and features a commentary track, the original theatrical trailer, and a brief restoration demonstration. The movie has been digitally transferred from a fully restored negative. The picture quality is luminous, affording us better glimpses into Celia Johnsonís wonderful saucer eyes. And serving as the theme score, Rachmaninoffís Second Piano Concerto sounds as crisp as ever, framing the entire movie within its chords.
Brief Encounter is based on a short play by Noel Coward entitled Still Life. Set entirely within a railway station, it follows a brief but passionate affair between two married people. Most of the events occur off-stage and we learn about them through post-facto conversation. The structure is linear: it begins when Mrs. Laura Jesson and Dr. Alec Harvey first meet (he helps remove a smut from her eye) and ends at their final goodbye. Adapting the play for the screen, director David Lean and Coward (along with co-writer Anthony Havelock-Allan) have materialized those off-stage moments. We see Lauraís pleasant but turgid domestic life. Her husband (Cyril Raymond) hardly notices her as he absently agrees with everything she says. We also witness the affair itself. It starts slowly and builds gradually through a series of chance encounters and meetings that are at once rapturous and chaste.
Leanís challenge in making Brief Encounter, we learn, was to retain the reminiscing quality of the play while liberating it from its confined setting. He uses several cinematic techniques, the most notable being the flashback structure. The movie begins where the play ends, at Lauraís and Alecís farewell. From there, Laura recalls the entire story, narrating in a breathless and at times frantic voice-over. Watching the events unfold in her memory and listening to her narration, we are drawn completely into her mind. In one scene when the present fades into the past, we see Laura sitting in the foreground, her husband facing her. The background melts away (Laura is still in the foreground) and turns, through optical effect, into her memory, so that she is literally looking into the past.
At certain points, the flashbacks are helped along in an almost Proustian manner by the Rachmaninoff piece. Lean inserts the music at crucial junctures: itís on the record Laura plays during her first flashback; and it resurfaces just before Laura and Alec acknowledge their love. We also learn how Brief Encounter was made at a time when music and movies had an uneasy relationship, and how using classical music in a dramatic film was unprecedented. Today of course, it is a clichť, but there are still traces of Leanís boldness, as when he allows the piano to drown out the spoken dialogue or when he has it compete head-on with the shrill railroad whistle.
The alternate audio track, which contains commentary by film historian Bruce Eder, is helpful mainly for placing Brief Encounter in historical context. Released in 1946 just after World War II, the movie was a blast of realism after years of corny propaganda flicks. The genteel suburban life Lean evokes was a novelty for audiences. It feels unromantic and sexless. Characters are clothed in unflattering overcoats and oversized hats. And the first kiss occurs somewhere past the halfway point. In the 1960s and '70s, audiences mocked the movieís slow, puritanical take on love. In recent years however, Brief Encounter has experienced a resurgence of sorts. Todayís audiences, both men and women, are drawn to Lauraís story for its blunt emotion and the unsentimental economy with which Lean conveys it.
In terms of Leanís career, Brief Encounter proved that this former editor could make movies that were both technically and emotionally masterful. "Not a frame is wasted," weíre told, and we can see itís true. Brief Encounter solidified Leanís stature as a film director, allowing him to pursue projects independent of Noel Coward, his longtime collaborator. It took him out of stage to screen adaptations and into the world of larger budgets and bigger canvases. It was also his first movie that captured the interest of Americans, earning him and Celia Johnson Academy Award nominations.
Most of the DVDís commentary focuses on deconstructing the narrative or providing biographical information on the filmmakers. Whatís missing is a more complete analysis of the technical achievements by Lean, cinematographer Robert Krasker, editor Jack Harris, as well as those of the restoration crew. How these technicians turned a very stage-bound story into a movie is truly a work of quiet genius that may forever remain a mystery. Like its heroine, Brief Encounter shines with a repressed intensity that refuses to fade with time.
Brief Encounter is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer with restored image and sound. The disc contians an alternate audio track track with commentary by film historian Bruce Eder. In addition, the disc includes an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95.