Doug’s Cinematic Firsties is a recurring series wherein Douglas Laman (A.K.A. NerdInTheBasement) will review a well-known classic motion picture that he’s never seen before.
Traditionally, movie romances are thought of in lush terms. Closing your eyes and picturing a typical movie romance sparks up images of brightly-colored sunsets, bouquets of decadent roses and other assorted vibrant entities. Even classic black-and-white movies compensated for their inability to present luscious visuals by having their characters engage in grand passionate gestures, like the iconic scene in From Here to Eternity depicting a couple passionately kissing on the beach while a wave of water crashes on top of them. These are the norms for movie romances but they are not the only way to explore such a topic.
Brief Encounter is a 1945 directorial effort from David Lean that seeks to upend the perception that movie romances can only be rendered through vibrant colors and/or grand gestures. Based on a play entitled Still Life by Noel Coward, Brief Encounter is all about a romance that’s kept subdued but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t ring as passionately as the best movie romances. In one of the many ways Brief Encounter deviates from movie romance conventions, we begin the movie not with a meet-cute sequence but rather the end of the primary romantic relationship. Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) having just said her reluctant farewell to Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard).
In the wake of this good-bye, Jesson is walking around in a trance, enamored with her own thoughts even when she’s back at home with her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). As she sits in her living room with her significant other, she flashes back to the time she spent with Harvey, with voice-over narration from Laura Jesson accentuating the characters’ crestfallen feelings towards this relationship being forced to come to an end. Among the many traits that united Laura and Alec is the fact that they’re both married people. It’s far from abnormal to center movie romances around people cheating on their spouses but usually, such cheating emerges because the relationship is toxic or some other dramatic circumstances.
Here, neither Laura nor Alec is caught in a nightmare of a relationship, just a quietly unfulfilling one. You can see why the prospect of just spending Thursdays with another person would bring out such joy in one another. The screenplay, credited to a quartet of writers including Lean and Coward, extends its inventive spirit to making sure their weekly meet-ups are far from perfect affairs. Between one week where Alec is so busy at the hospital that he barely shows up to interact with Laura to another outing where Laura is forced to exit Alec’s home through a window, there are just as many awkward slip-ups in their interactions as there are moments of blissful romantic connection.
Such realistic shortcomings in their time together makes the duo feel like they actually come from reality itself, a realm where things rarely go according to plan while also helping to remind the viewer of precarious this secret relationship is. That aspect of their dynamic is enhanced in its effectiveness by the masterful cinematography of Robert Krasker. Shot in black-and-white, the monochromatic color scheme and careful uses of shadows & smokes help the movie on a number of levels. For one thing, such visual details aid the sense of intrigue surrounding Laura & Alec’s relationship. Sneaking around behind their respective partners’ backs to carry on their romance, there’s undeniable duplicity in their actions that are reflected in striking visual elements like omnipresent shadows.
Krasker’s cinematography also makes the bittersweet emotions of Laura all the more powerfully-realized. The entire movie is her reliving her memories of a romance that’s now crumbled into pieces and the cinematography is used to strengthen the sense of sorrow that’s now consuming her mind. She can now only view this short but unforgettable portion of her life in such dramatic bleak visual terms. Accompanying such masterful cinematography is narration from Laura Jesson that so sharply captures the conflicting emotions this character is experiencing. At once feeling guilty over cheating on her husband while also wanting to revel in this now-lost relationship, it’s an aspect of the script that, like the imperfect nature of Laura & Alec’s meet-ups, hews closely to actual human behavior.
Rarely do people think in black-and-white terms when it comes to romance, more often love inspires the sort of complex internal emotions that are plastered all over Laura’s voice-over narration. Such narration is excellently executed by Celia Johnson, her line readings hauntingly capture visceral heartache and her physical performance is similarly effective in that regard. That scene where Laura plans to jump in front of a moving train only to stop just beforehand is a shining example of this. Johnson’s vacant expression watching the train that almost killed her speed right by evocatively captures a woman who feels she has nothing to live for without the company of somebody she loves. It’s the kind of scene that helps to cement Brief Encounter as a one-of-a-kind take on movie romances.