Tearjerkers are part and parcel of cinema, however much we refuse to accord them status. But when David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) was previewed in Rochester, a coarse laugh from near the front of the audience enlivened the first love scene. And by the end of the film, the whole audience was rolling in the aisles.
The cinema was right next to Chatham Dockyards, which might explain the furore. Later, the critics took so different a view that Rank advertised it in the industrial north as being good “in spite of the wild praise of the London critics”.
Many years later I interviewed Lean, who told me that the French were misguided in praising the film’s innate understanding of the English middle classes, underlined by the fact that the lovers never went to bed with each other. “They might well have screwed like rabbits in real life,” he said, “but this was real life as J Arthur Rank insisted on us seeing it.”
Even so, the reticence made for a classic film, very much more than a theatrical adaptation, with Celia Johnson as the married woman and Trevor Howard as the doctor who falls for her, giving superb and brilliantly judged performances.
No matter how often the film is mocked and parodied, most notably by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, or sneered at by Pauline Kael (“There is not a breath of air in it”) it remains extraordinarily moving. Only the comic relief provided by the attendant working classes (“Come off it, mother, be a pal!” “I’ll give you mother, you saucy upstart!”) now seems false.
Even at the time, the film defied most of the rules of the box office, having no star names, an unhappy ending, unglamorous locations and lovers approaching middle age. The risk came off triumphantly, and Brief Encounter remains a piece of cinema remembered with affection by almost everybody who saw it.
Of course, Lean made many more spectacular films: his next project, Great Expectations, is undoubtedly the greatest Dickens adaptation for the screen and shows a master editor as well as a magnificent film-maker at work. But Brief Encounter’s simplicity always one of the most difficult things to achieve remains unsurpassed, like it or not.
Lean did nothing to interrupt the main thrust of the story, in which a happily married woman with a nice husband and children falls for a man with whom there can be no future. Guilt would, of course, always obscure the scenario.
Curiously Johnson, whose performance anchors the story, loathed making films and was terrified by the thought of holding this one together with a then-inexperienced Trevor Howard. Though in the end Howard gives a superb portrayal, he couldn’t at the time understand one scene: when Laura, begged by Alec to come to the flat borrowed from a friend, eventually arrives and the two begin talking about the weather and damp wood on the fire.
As Kevin Brownlow tells it in his book about Lean, Howard said: “David, will you please explain this to me. This is a fucking awful scene.”
Lean replied: “What’s fucking awful about it?”
“Well,” said Howard, “they know jolly well this chap’s borrowed a flat, they know exactly why she’s coming back to him why doesn’t he fuck her? All this talk about the wood being damp and that sort of stuff.”
“Look, Trevor,” said Lean. “Have you ever been out with a girl and you know that you’re going to make love, whether it’s her place or your place, and then when you get there and the door is shut and you’re alone, everything’s changed and there’s a kind of embarrassment that you hadn’t got when you were surrounded by people?”
Howard: “Oh God, you are a funny chap.” Lean: “Funny chap or not, that’s the way we’re doing the scene. Now come on.”
Whatever might or might not have happened, the scene in the flat is, of course, interrupted by the arrival of Valentine Dyall as the owner. Dyall was later to be famous as the lugubrious Man In Black. But at no point in his career did he do a more unfortunate thing than to disturb those lovers and their damp wood.
A scene to remember
Alec: You know what’s happened, don’t you?
Laura: Yes yes, I do.
Alec: I’ve fallen in love with you.
Laura: Yes I know.
Alec: Tell me honestly, my dear, please tell me honestly if what I believe is true Laura: What do you believe?
Alec: That it’s the same with you that you’ve fallen in love too.
Laura: It sounds so silly.
Laura: I know you so little.
Alec: It’s true though isn’t it?
Laura: Yes it’s true.