I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days
Trains have been a part of cinema from the start. The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat by The Lumiere Brothers debuted in 1896, a month after cinema was birthed. In the United States, the first widely successful film was The Great Train Robbery by Edwin S. Porter from 1903. Part of this is just that trains were the prominent form of mass transportation circa cinema’s birth, and most stories require traveling from one place to another.
I think there’s more to it than that, though. Trains are deeply cinematic. They are just the right size to capture with a movie camera whether you’re inside or outside the vehicle. Their sharp design features and straight paths of motion make for striking compositions. A moving train is the essence of power and spectacle: There’s a famous, likely apocryphal, story that viewers jumped out of their seats when they watched The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat for fear of their lives. The image of a train flying down the tracks, even projected on a screen, is just that impressive.
As the new century struggled through its first few decades with war and plague and financial ruin and nonstop revolution, the train became something else: A symbol. A train is the runaway momentum of industrial progress, of a system so precise and regimented that humans’ lives must become machines, too. Anything romantic or spontaneous or passionate becomes a piece of grit in the eye, an inconvenient and painful scrape.
On the surface, Brief Encounter is not quite so grim about modernity and its crushing expectations, but it’s all there just a layer down: From the opening shot of a steam engine that’s so imposing and daunting that it’s almost a jump scare, through the tragic final moments in which housewife Laura (Celia Johnson) admits that her brief throe of passion was a “dream” and that she’s “returned” to her husband, Fred (Cyril Raymond), she’s a woman in conflict between progress and stasis, engine and station.
Her ending, happy and stable on the surface, feels tragic not just because she lost her lover, but because she submitted to the crushing machine: her maternal role; her proper British family; her housewife responsibilities; her imperial twilight. The grit in her eye has been cleared, though something vital has been lost.
Brief Encounter is the story of two married people — not to each other — falling in love in the wrong place and at the wrong time. A friendly doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) and Laura both find themselves in town every Thursday: Laura doing the weekly shopping, Alex doing a shift at the local hospital. Their bumps into each other on the street and at restaurants become less coincidental and more planned until it’s a full-on romantic ritual, a once-per-week tryst in which they fall deeply in love. They share similar worldviews and senses of humor and, somehow, Alec can always guess just what Laura is thinking — in part because he’s thinking it, too. Compare it to her relationship with Fred, who is a genial and caring husband but who never has the slightest idea what she’s feeling, and the connection between Alec and Laura feels profound. (Here’s the dispassionate way Laura describes her husband when someone asks about him: “Medium height, brown hair, kindly, not emotional.”)
The film opens with what appears to be a normal and proper encounter between Alec and Laura — we don’t yet know of their doomed romance — only for the pair to part with a simple shoulder squeeze from Alec. Laura momentarily steps outside to catch some air, returns to meet with her chatty friend, and heads home. During that train ride, we get Laura’s internal monologue and realize she’s in a dazed agony.
That night as she’s winding down for the evening with Fred, she turns on a record — Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. It’s a swooning, intensely expressive piece. The rest of the movie will take place that evening, but with Laura reminiscing over all of her lost Thursdays. The film ingeniously and innovatively uses this structure to score the rest of the film to Rachmaninoff — it is, after all, what Laura is hearing as she narrates the memories we’re watching.
The film bounces back in time several weeks and takes us step-by-step through her affair, with Laura narrating it as a silent confession to her husband: We hear her reckoning with the entire relationship, starting with a piece of soot in the eye, through escalating Thursday dates, back finally until the movie’s opening scene, shown again, this time from Laura’s eyes and with the full context of a deep romance. We learn that her step outside to catch some air was actually a contemplation of suicide, throwing herself in front of a train, submitting her flesh and bone and heart to the crushing steam engine of post-war industrial society.
Perhaps the most notable part of the affair is what it is missing: sex. This heightens the sense of anticlimax in their relationship and amplifies the feeling that they’re trapped in midcentury British propriety crumbling upon itself. They have one close call, a retreat to Alec’s friend’s flat that gets interrupted before it goes too far. (Incidentally, this dynamic of someone offering his dwelling as a haven for affairs inspired Billy Wilder to make The Apartment.)
Everything about Brief Encounter works and clicks together to tell a heartbreaking and lovely story. The acting is outstanding: Johnson as Laura gives an absolutely masterclass of competing emotions, her stoicism grappling with her passions, her eyes longing when in love and glazing when heartbroken. It’s a performance for the ages. Howard’s performance as Alex is strong too, though his character is not as complex as Laura, and his performance is subsequently not quite as layered.
The script, by playwright Noël Coward, based on one of his plays, is a masterpiece. It’s filled with some stirring love confessions, a brilliant retrospective structure, and a surprising amount of wit. (“Cold?” “No, not really.” “Happy?” “No, not really.”)
The real show-stealer, though, is David Lean’s direction accompanied by Robert Krasker’s black-and-white cinematography. This is simply one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Nothing is more impressive than the footage of the trains, huge and billowing. The luscious English countrysides traveled during Laura and Alec’s dates come close, though. Lean captures every expressive angle and shadow of Johnson’s face as she falls in love and ponders her predicament.
The Rachmaninoff score gives the film an undercurrent that’s almost woozy, so sweepingly romantic and voluptuous as it is. It adds such color and richness to the film that makes the romance feel even more vast and profound. Though not composed originally for the film, it certainly stands as one of cinema’s most effective scores.
One of the pleasures of entering the full throes of steadily married adulthood is gaining a new appreciation for “grown up” romances. First loves have a certain purity and intensity, of course, but there’s something so moving about people who have seen a lot of shit in their life still allowing their hearts to open. The clockwork of modern society tamps it down, but with enough fuel and fire, love can build up a head of steam. And few adulthood romances in cinema are more profound than the runaway train of understated passion in Brief Encounter.