Nighttime; a railway station in Britain, circa WWII. An express train races through the smoky darkness, Rachmaninoff’s second Piano Concerto rages, and a man and a woman—their intimate tête-à-tête interrupted by a prissy acquaintance—silently say farewell, his hand lightly gripping her shoulder in lieu of a kiss. What led devoted housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) to this point? The memories flood in after she arrives home to her husband and two children: that speck of grit that flew in her eye all those months before, which brought Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) to her aid and led to an impulsive, mostly chaste affair. A love, of course, that couldn’t last.
David Lean’s classic weepie, adapted from a Noël Coward play (Still Life), is sheer perfection—the gold standard of tragic romances whose influence can still be seen to this day. (Andrew Haigh’s recent indie Weekend gave the basic template a queer twist, and plenty have interpreted Coward’s story as a coded gay romance.) Johnson and Howard’s repressed passion could fuel an English tank battalion, and the shadowy black-and-white cinematography—a love story drenched in noirish tones—looks especially gorgeous in this new 4K restoration. But it’s not all tears and anguish: Lean and Coward leaven the film’s inevitably upsetting outcome with a few pointedly satirical asides, the best of which is a movie-within-the-movie (Flames of Passion) that does all the emoting Brief Encounter’s prim-and-proper protagonists can’t.
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