Not long after the Second World War came to a close to-be-auteur Robert Altman, with nothing better to do, walked into a theatre in the middle of the afternoon. The film he wound up seeing, directed by David Lean and written by Noël Coward, puzzled him a bit at first. The two leads were pretty ordinary, not all that much to look at, the leading man certainly no Cary Grant, and the leading lady certainly no Rita Hayworth. “But,” as his wife Kathryn Altman said, “twenty minutes later he was in tears, and he had fallen in love with her. And it made him feel that it wasn’t just a movie.” The film he’d seen was 1945’s Brief Encounter.
Brief Encounter tells the story of a pair of ordinary middle-class people (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard), both married, who happen upon each other in a train station buffet and, before either can stop themselves, fall in love. Adapted from a one-act play called Still Life written by Noël Coward, the film, in a way that’s rare for today let alone 1945, doesn’t try and come up with excuses for their extramarital affair, no abusive husbands or loveless wives.
Instead we follow them on small outing after small outing, with them every step of the way as they grow more and more fond of each other. With the question of if they will give in and commit adultery hanging over them at every moment, it would be easy for the film to leave us feeling like voyeurs obsessed solely with the will-they-or-won’t-they suspense of it all, but it doesn’t, we feel part of it. We feel as though this is happening to us just as much as it’s happening to Laura and Alec.
If Great Britain has a “national director” it’d no question be David Lean. Undoubtedly most famous for his mastery of the 4-hour runtime, with films like Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, all sprawling epics about figures larger than life, David Lean can rest easy knowing he’s a long, long, long way from ever being forgotten. But if there’s a downside to turning out three gargantuan classics in a row, it’s that the one thing gargantuan classics tend to do is drown out other often just as brilliant films, just ask Frank Capra, or Martin Scorsese, or Billy Wilder. Before Lawrence, David Lean already had under his belt the wildly popular Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, and, peppered in between, small, intimate films like Summertime and Brief Encounter.
While Lean’s remembered today as one of the greatest filmmakers ever to live, he’d be the first to admit that he owed everything to Noël Coward. A playwright, composer, director, actor, singer, Noël Coward did just about everything an entertainer could do and when he did it was always distinctly him. Most known for his work in the theatre, Coward’s career in film could be easily forgotten simply because of the breadth of his importance in other fields, but it was him that first gave then editor David Lean a shot behind the wheel. The pair made four films together, the first being In Which We Serve, where Lean and Coward shared directing credit, and the last being Brief Encounter.
Even today the topic of adultery in literature and in film is mostly something to be treated with contempt, the adulterer being only a step above a mass murderer on the morality scale. But the truth behind why people may be tempted to have affairs is as murky as anything gets. After all, what stickier topics and emotions are there than love and lust. While other critics have pointed to Brief Encounter as being a perfect example of repressed emotions as a British virtue, to me it’s far more universal. Every single person who’s been in a long-term relationship has met at one point or another someone they could imagine another life with, that if circumstances were different they’d run off with. Feelings like these aren’t only for the Cary Grants and the Rita Hayworths of the world, they’re for everyone. Just as the Paddy Chayefsky-penned Marty would do almost a decade later, Brief Encounter proves that, unlike what Hollywood would seemingly have us believe, love doesn’t only belong to the beautiful.