Tuesday, April 29, 2008

This Month on TCM: David Lean's "Brief Encounter" (1945)

Tomorrow, April 30th, on TCM, is one of director David Lean's classic "pre-epic" films, Brief Encounter. This British film earned Oscar nominations for Actress, Director, and Screenplay.

Brief Encounter is about a married woman who has a chance meeting with a man at the train station and eventually falls in love with him. The story is very simple and compared to its American "weepie" counterparts, comes off so much more true-to-life.

Celia Johnson (as Laura Jesson) anchors the story and it's through her eyes (and her narration) that the film unfolds. It's most striking device is that of the flashback opening that's repeated as the final scene. Laura's frustration at her chatterbox friend Dolly makes this scene (in both versions)— it calls out how other people can be so self-involved that they spoil what could be the most significant moments of your life.

The film is set in pre-World War II London, where Laura meets Alec, a doctor, who helps get a piece of grit out of her eye. Laura is on her weekly shopping trip and she doesn't think much about the incident until the following week when she bumps into Alec again and a romance is kindled. The play on which the film is based is Noel Coward's "Still Life." The Coward material is adapted well— rarely does a stage play escape it's origins— Brief Encounter is freed from the stage by Lean's narrative devices.

Despite its infidelity plotline, the movie is among the most sweepingly romantic in film history. The film is set against the striking Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2. The music adds to the romantic nature of the film, helped also by the high key lighting photography.

The Oscars got it right in naming its three nominations. Although co-star Trevor Howard works well as the doctor, Celia Johnson carries the film: had the casting been off by the slightest there would be no movie here. Were Lean and his co-writers slightly off tone, slightly off structure, it would have fallen apart.

Brief Encounter is one of those classics, like Casablanca, in which everything just seems right.

Brief Encounter (1945): "Despite its modest scope and potentially immoral plot, this is a sweeping romance that serves as a vehicle for one of the great female performances in film.

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