In this enlightened age of quickie divorces and Ashley Madison, it would be all too easy to sniff at ‘Brief Encounter’, director David Lean and author Noël Coward’s prim, oh-so-English tale of romance, respectability and repression. But those willing to give themselves over to the film’s mounting mood of swooning, tight-lipped desperation will be rewarded with one of the most vivid, impassioned and painfully believable love stories ever committed to celluloid.
She is Laura (Celia Johnson): the good little housewife to a drab, inattentive middle-class worker bee, trudging through a repetitive, stultifying existence somewhere in suburbia. He is Alec (Trevor Howard): a doctor whose equally loveless union has driven him to find solace in work. Their chance meeting in a station café develops first into a casual friendship, then gradually, guiltily into something neither of them can fully understand or admit.
Drenched in Lancashire drizzle and overshadowed both by the receding clamour of war and the spectre of impending social change – it was released in 1945 – ‘Brief Encounter’ is so much more than just a tale of two lovers. It’s also an affectionate but firm nudge-in-the ribs for the British bourgeoisie: are we really going to let our lives run on rails, never grabbing happiness where we find it? Have we learned nothing in these cruel years? As it turned out, Lean and Coward were on to something: just a few decades later, the selfless, stifled attitudes of ‘Brief Encounter’ would, for better or worse, be a distant memory.