A triumph of pristine photography, sensitive direction and, above all, Received Pronunciation, Brief Encounter is the British Casablanca and Noel Coward’s greatest contribution to cinema. Peter Ustinov said Kind Hearts and Coronets is the kind of film that makes you want to read the script. Brief Encounter is the kind of film that makes you want to learn it by heart and perform it as a party piece, like the sixth formers in The History Boys.
The brief encounter in question occurs in a railway station café one Thursday afternoon; Celia Johnson’s perky housewife has grit in her eye, and Trevor Howard’s handsome doctor removes it with his handkerchief. A week later lunch follows, and an afternoon at the cinema, and soon the pair have plunged headlong into a love neither can ignore or allow.
It’s rare for two actors to have such chemistry as Johnson and Howard, and rarer still for them to convince us that their characters, too, have the same connection, but their performances – Johnson with upper lip stiff, lower lip quivering, and huge, liquid eyes expressing every unspoken surge of desire and guilt; Howard at once honourable and adulterous – dovetail exquisitely. We want desperately for them to be together, but know from the first scene they cannot. That throughout the film we allow ourselves, illogically, to believe that love might still find a way is the greatest compliment that can be paid to its storytelling.
There are great films in which one quality – a magnificent central performance, say, or a white-hot script – cover up less successful aspects of the production. In Encounter everything is polished. The use of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto – lush and emotive without ever over-sweetening the syrup – is a masterstroke. As is the choice to have Johnson’s character narrate the story in one long, warts and all confession to her husband that is heard only inside her own head. The inclusion of secondary characters of no real interest to the lovers is equally ingenious, and never allows us to forget that this is a cameo set in an infinite if mundane world in which, at any moment, a thousand other little dramas are playing out similarly unnoticed.
Perhaps no great film is quite as ripe for parody as Encounter – it takes place in an un-recapturable age of clipped accents, hysterical women and pre-war morals, all which are a little too close to laughable today – but these quirks, which would be full-blown faults in almost any other movie, are advantages here. They combine to deepen our affection for the whole production and reinforce the feeling, unavoidable with every viewing, that romance in the movies really was better when the picture was black and white and the sex unseen. You have to engage with a weepy, just as you do with a horror film. Engage with Brief Encounter, and you may just weep your eyeballs out.