Christ, David Lean knew how to compose a shot. I swear you could take all of his movies, put them in a pile, shuffle them up, and no matter what scene came up, you could make a stunning poster out of the image. We tend to think of his later, grand pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago when we think about David Lean’s stunning images, but Brief Encounter proves he could create something epic out of little things as well.
Filmed in 1945 in the final vestiges of the European stage of World War II, Brief Encounter is a small film. Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) plays a presumably happily married woman who goes to a nearby town do her shopping every Tuesday. She shops, borrows a book, catches a movie then dines in the little Railroad cafe before catching her train home. One such Tuesday she gets a bit of grit in her eye and by chance is helped out by Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). The next week they accidentally bump into each other at one of the shops. By the next week, these accidental encounters are planned gatherings and they fall in love.
Very little action develops in the film. It is a movie of expertly drawn little moments. The affair is not a torrid one. Save for a few kisses, it is never physically consummated. The one time they even think about trying to make love, Alec’s friend, who owns the apartment they go to, comes home early and Laura runs out the back. As an interesting side-note, this scene partly inspired Billy Wilder to make The Apartment.
Though their love is not of the blistering variety, it is quite passionate. The glimpses we see of Laura’s home life find a loving, but rather dull, inattentive husband and we can see how Alec’s fervent attentions exhilarate her emotions. David Lean paints small pictures of them together - with trips to the movies, walks across a picturesque bridge, and intimate conversations we feel their growing love.
We feel their pain too as each of them become engulfed by guilt over what they are doing. When Laura begs Alec to help her be strong, we understand how he must take a job offer in Africa and never see her again.
The cinematography is impeccable. Criterion’s transfer looks absolutely gorgeous. Lean creates scene after scene of incredible pictures. Whether it's the smoke-filled train zooming into the station, or the noir-tinged, layered-in-shadows embrace under the platform, or the way he frames Laura like an angel in the corner while they dine, every scene is brimming with meaning and beauty.
As someone who is happily married, but understands the near constant struggle of just making it through each day, Brief Encounter is sometimes difficult to watch. Their affair is so real and so heartbreaking. I want them to be together and yet I need them to return to their families and that tension is so well drawn, so wonderfully created, that it just destroys me.
Brief Encounter has been previously released by Criterion in a DVD version years back. It received a high definition upgrade in 2012 as part of their David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set (you can read our review here). There is nothing new in this set that wasn’t previously released on those disks.
You can read our previous review for details, but the basics are: a new 4K high definition digital transfer, audio commentary from film historian Bruce Eder, an interview with Noel Coward scholar Barry Day, a short documentary on the making of the film, a wonderful profile of David Lean from 1971, and a nice essay from historian Kevin Brownlow.
If the price point for the boxed set is too high for you, or if you are looking into an entry point for David Lean’s less epic films, Brief Encounter is perfect. It is a marvelous, gorgeous film and Criterion has made it magnificent.