BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945, Director David Lean)

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

Brief Encounter is one of the most respected films from the esteemed British director David Lean, even though it is not a particularly representative Lean film. Lean, for example, won two Academy Awards for Best Director—for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), both of which are large-scale war epics in exotic settings, featuring dramatic color cinematography. And it is for this sort of “big” picture for which he is best known. Brief Encounter, though,is a small, intimate drama shot in black and white, a film that is about feelings, rather than actions. Yet it was ranked in a 1999 British Film Institute poll as Lean’s greatest film and the second greatest British film of the twentieth century[1]. (Lawrence of Arabia was ranked third, while Lean’s 1946 Dickens adaptation Great Expectations was ranked fifth, and The Bridge on the River Kwai was eleventh.). Moreover, while it is considered one of the greatest romantic films of all time, Brief Encounter is about an aborted romance that is never given a chance truly to develop. It is thus not so much a love story as a story of how difficult it is to find genuine romance in the context of middle-class British society in the mid-twentieth century. As a result, it contains a great deal of subtle, submerged social commentary, even though it seems, on the surface, to be an entirely personal story.

Brief Encounter is perhaps the single greatest work to have emerged from the collaboration between Lean and distinguished British playwright Noël Coward, who served as something of a mentor to the younger Lean in the latter’s early years in the film industry. Coward, one of England’s leading playwrights in the middle part of the twentieth century, also worked extensively in film. Lean’s first credit as a director, for example, was for In Which We Serve, a wartime propaganda film that was co-directed by Coward, as well as being written and produced by the playwright. Coward also produced Lean’s first solo directorial effort, in This Happy Breed (1944), based on a play of the same title by Coward. Lean’s Blithe Spirit (1945) was also produced by Coward and based on a similarly-titled play by Coward. And Brief Encounter itself was produced and co-written by Coward, based on his 1936 play Still Life.

The plot of Brief Encounter is quite simple. Housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is on her weekly outing to the town of Milford (a sort of combination shopping trip and break from her household routine) when she has a chance meeting with married medical doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), who comes to her aid when a piece of grit thrown up by a passing train becomes lodged in her right eye. After a couple of other chance meetings, Laura and Alec begin to arrange to meet on purpose, for things like a quiet meal and a trip to the movies. By the time they take a drive into the country, where they kiss passionately on a picturesque stone bridge, they have apparently developed a strong emotional attachment, so much so that they soon find themselves alone in a flat belonging to Stephen Lynn (Valentine Dyall), one of Alec’s friends and a fellow doctor. They are then seemingly saved from an adulterous liaison when Stephen returns unexpectedly, sending Laura scurrying out the back door[2]. Decorum is thus preserved, and the two never consummate their relationship, though they seem to be genuinely in love with each other. Realizing that Laura is beginning to withdraw from him after this close call, Alec announces that he has decided to take a job he has been offered at a hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. The two would-be lovers meet for one last emotional farewell as they share tea in the railway station refreshment room where they first met. Then, in one final tragic touch, their final conversation is interrupted and ruined when a nosey friend of Laura butts in and joins them. Alec departs without a real goodbye, and Laura, overwhelmed with sadness, briefly considers suicide before ultimately returning to her family and her humdrum, passionless life.

A kiss on a country bridge.

As a personal narrative of thwarted romance, Brief Encounter seems quite straightforward. We learn a great deal about Laura’s domestic situation, including several scenes involving her son and daughter and her bland husband Fred (Cyril Raymond). Fred is a decent sort, but it is also clearly the case that the fortyish Jessons have settled into a life of passionless routine. Fred shows a vague affection toward Laura but clearly has little access to or understanding of her interior life. We see nothing of Alec’s home life, though we learn that he has a wife and two boys, while the film seems to imply that his marriage has settled into much the same middle-class boredom and routine as has Laura’s[3]. The film tiptoes very carefully through what (in 1945) might have been very delicate material, taking care to make both Laura and Alec sympathetic characters. This characterization is reinforced by the performances of Johnson and Howard, both of whom radiate likeability. Moreover, the film is structured so that the would-be affair is presented almost entirely as a flashback that is narrated by Laura as her imagined confession to her husband, with Johnson’s voiceover performance effectively transmitting the notion that she had truly been in love with Alec and that she had been genuinely tormented by the knowledge that this love was forbidden by the standards of her society. She is also troubled by the fact that this love was a betrayal of her oath of fidelity to her husband, who seems to have faithfully fulfilled his duties as a spouse, even if he no longer excites passion in Laura (and probably never did). Laura’s troubled emotional state is also effectively conveyed in a number of closeups of Celia Johnson’s face, radiating sadness and strain, often while that face is brightly lit, but surrounded by darkness.

The relatively complex narrative structure of Brief Encounter is one of many ways in which the film is actually more artfully complex than the straightforward bit of realism that it at first appears to be. The film begins essentially at the end, then jumps to the beginning as Laura starts the interior monologue that is her narration, then moves forward until it reaches the end again. In that, Brief Encounter resembles a number of American noir films that have a similar structure—including, for example, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), perhaps the greatest of all noir films. And, as Puckett has pointed out, the visual aesthetics of the film are also often reminiscent of film noir, including a tendency toward Expressionism in the lighting (142). Further, Puckett goes on to argue, though the subject matter of Brief Encounter might seem a far cry from the kinds of things that are usually associated with film noir, the film can be regarded as “a sort of domestic noir, a style of film that overlays the stylistic charge of film noir onto an ordinary but no less intense personal experience” (143).

A very noir shot of the shadows of Laura and Alec, just before their first kiss.

Raymond’s performance as Fred does a good job of conveying his character as a dependable husband and father, but one who is perhaps a bit emotionally stunted, incapable of real passion. There are also subtle touches in the film that help to reinforce Fred’s character, as when Laura returns home in one scene to find Fred overmatched in his attempts to care for their children in her absence, during which a dispute about what activities to pursue on the next day has arisen between the son and daughter. Laura deals with the minor crisis quickly and easily, then later seems the more sensible of the two parents when she confers with Fred about the problem. Fred is simply not very engaged in the household, to which his primarily contribution seems to be the provision of financial support and a certain general stability.

Perhaps the most interesting characterization of Fred occurs in one domestic moment between him and Laura in which he is working on a newspaper crossword puzzle, which seems to be his primary activity in the household. For one thing, his immersion in the puzzle signals the lack of true connection between him and his wife. For another, his obliviousness to the emotionally powerful Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 that plays on their radio during the scene suggests his imperviousness to romance. Laura, meanwhile, clearly feels the music as she sits across from Fred, distracted and lost in thought about her relationship with Alec and narrating (in her head) that relationship to Fred[4]. But this scene also makes an even subtler (but powerful) point. As it begins, Fred looks up from his puzzle to ask Laura’s advice concerning one clue he is having trouble with, which involves completing a passage in a poem by the Romantic poet John Keats, entitled “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be.” The clue includes the lines “When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face / Huge cloudy symbols of a high …” Fred, though, is stumped over the final seven-letter word that completes the passage. Given that he regards Laura as a “poetry addict,” Fred has good reason to expect that she will know the answer, and this expectation is indeed met. Laura immediately supplies the missing word—“Romance”—and it is clearly implied by this exchange that Laura dreams of romance, while Fred is unable to imagine it at all. Moreover, Fred’s acknowledgement that “Romance” fits in the puzzle along with “delirium” and “Baluchistan” suggests that the notion of romance, to him, lies somewhere between the exotic and the insane. At the same time, Laura’s familiarity with the poetry of Keats—together with Fred’s somewhat condescending characterization of this familiarity as an “addiction”—suggests that the two spouses have fundamental differences in their temperaments and interests. Laura is suggested here to be the sensitive and imaginative sort who can understand and appreciate poetry (especially Romantic poetry), while Fred is suggested to have the kind of pedestrian mind that has no room for the poetic or the romantic.

Other aspects of the film are more complex than they might first appear as well. On the surface, Brief Encounter seems to go out of its way to avoid bringing political issues into its story, keeping its focus not only on private experience, but giving that experience a kind of universality. Though the film was released after the end of World War II, it was shot while the war was still going on. This war had a huge impact on British life, yet there is no sign of that impact in this film which was shot largely at the Carnforth Railway Station in Lancashire, chosen partly because it was remote enough not to be affected by the blackouts that were enforced in major cities in order to avoid providing easy targets for German bombers. Most have taken the omission of references to the war in the film to indicate that the action is set just before the war, though there is relatively little in the film to establish that setting. At the same time, one could also argue that this omission can be taken to indicate that the experiences undergone by the characters might occur in virtually any modern time period and are not to be taken as conditioned by a wartime context. Alternatively, one could argue that the lack of any wartime hardships—blackouts, bombings, rationing, and the like—also helps to produce a sort of idealized world in which ideal romance can thrive. Still, one could argue that the absence of the war from the film does not simply remove the film’s events from historical reality. Instead, it might be taken to indicate the way in which middle-class British values are so entrenched that they cannot be dislodged even by an event as dramatic as a world war.[5]

It is important that the liaison between Laura and Alec is not about physical lust; it is about the fact that they seemingly establish a genuine connection that neither has with their own spouse. They supply to each other a kind of understanding that is difficult to find in the modern world. At the same time, neither of them is really able to overcome the moral demands of the conservative middle-class society that surrounds them, demands that seem to deny them the personal satisfaction they so badly crave. This last aspect of the film takes its story beyond the realm of the merely personal. For one thing, it recalls Sigmund Freud’s well-known argument in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) that human societies are largely designed to prevent individuals from the unrestrained pursuit of their natural impulses (largely having to do with sexual desire and violent aggression), thus creating a fundamental opposition between the fulfillment of individual desire and the maintenance of social order. However, while Freud’s analysis assumes a certain universality of human experience, it is quite clear that Brief Encounter wants to suggest that there is something special in the structure of polite British society, with its stiff-upper-lip mentality, that makes repression of natural impulses an especially strong force in Britain.

Indeed, the personal and the political are virtually impossible to separate in this context, and even Laura’s most private thoughts are powerfully informed by the public values of her society. Just after supplying Fred with the answer to the clue about Keats, Laura thinks to herself that Fred’s dependability should be enough for her. And yet, she thinks, “I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” Laura’s thought here is a key to the film. The fact that she thinks of love as a departure from the ordinary—and a violent one at that—suggests the way in which she feels that she has no right to experience the kind of passion she feels for Alec and that, as a proper middle-class Englishwoman, she should be perfectly happy with the kind of solidity and stability that Fred provides, even if he is unable to stir her emotions in the way Alec does. Indeed, Fred seems so immersed on British bourgeois solidity that he is incapable of even imagining the kind of passion that Laura has been experiencing with Alec.

One of the most powerful forces limiting the ability of Alec and Laura to fulfill their mutual desire is their growing awareness of the need to hide their relationship from the prying eyes of others. And it is clear that this concern goes beyond the fear of having their relationship reported to their respective spouses. Instead, it involves a deeply internalized sense of impropriety that makes them ashamed to have even perfect strangers know about their feelings for each other. As the film proceeds, they become more and more aware of the need to keep their actions a secret. Indeed, Stephen, the only other character who discovers that Alec is having an affair (though he does not know it is with Laura), expresses strong disapproval, even disgust at Alec’s transgression against bourgeois norms[6]. This aspect of the film thus indicates the way in which the pressure to conform within British society is often essentially a form of peer pressure, with individuals policing the behavior of each other to the extent that little official repression is actually required.

The need for Laura and Alec to hide their relationship from others also resonates with the position of Coward as a closeted gay man living in a Britain in which male homosexual conduct was literally illegal, making it necessary for gay couples to conduct their private relationships under the cloak of secrecy[7]. Thus, Sean O’Connor reads the film as an “allegorical representation of forbidden love,” with the experiences of Britain’s closeted homosexuals serving as the central inspiration for Coward’s allegory (157). This reading, of course, makes the experience of gay men a particularly extreme example of the way in which British bourgeois society in general attempts to force everyone (at least everyone in the middle class) to conform to the same social codes, without allowances for individual differences[8].

There is, however, a strong class-based element to this enforced conformity, which is primarily focused on the middle class, conventionally considered in modern Britain as the group that is responsible for providing moral leadership to British society as a whole. Indeed, this attitude had been central to British society since the rise of the middle class to full political and economic hegemony at the beginning of the nineteenth century, even though the majority of British citizens were members of the working class. Brief Encounter reflects this view of British society both by locating its central characters within the middle class and by providing an alternative working-class couple for contrast. This couple—railway ticket inspector Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey), who manages the refreshment room—are presented in something of a comic mode, somewhat in the tradition of the “mechanicals” often featured in the plays of Shakespeare (such as the amateur actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Stephano and Trinculo in The Tempest). We actually find out relatively little about the relationship between Myrtle and Albert, other than the fact that they clearly are not married but clearly do have some sort of personal relationship that is informed by playful and flirtatious banter of a kind we could never imagine passing between Laura and Alec. Myrtle, we also learn, earlier left her inadequate husband, something that Laura does not seem to have the strength or independence to do.

Myrtle and Albert seem altogether happier, livelier, and earthier than their bourgeois counterparts, and this characterization might be taken as the film’s greatest weakness. After all, while Myrtle and Albert are seemingly treated sympathetically, this sympathy would appear to be a bit condescending. It is certainly the case that Laura seems to view them with a lofty amusement; moreover, as Dyer argues, her centrally to the film asks for us to view them with amusement as well (68). Their characterization tends to suggest that they do not face the serious existential questions that are faced by Laura and Alec but instead lead less stressful lives informed by simple pleasures and material comforts. In particular, they do not bear the burden of the middle-class characters, who seem to feel, not just a personal responsibility to their own spouses and families, but a class responsibility to provide moral leadership to Britain (and, by extension, to the world) as a whole.

Or at least Laura seems to feel this responsibility. We learn very little in terms of details about the inner life of Alec, because essentially everything in the film is presented to us from the point of view of Laura; meanwhile, there is no real indication in the film that Laura herself actually knows very much about how Alec feels about things, so she is not really able to convey his point of view to us. In this sense, the film comes very close to endorsing the rather old-fashioned and patriarchal notion that the responsibility for sexual rectitude ultimately lies with women, because boys will be boys and men cannot be expected to resist temptation if it is offered to them. At the same time, one could also argue that the film must place Laura at its moral center simply because of its structural reliance on her as the narrator and point-of-view character. Still, more could clearly have been done to show that Alec feels a similar moral burden had Lean and Coward chosen to do so.

Of course, the realization that Alec and Laura actually don’t know each other very well brings about some significant complications in our understanding of Brief Encounter. Almost all readings of the film have relied upon the central premise that Alec and Laura are truly in love, that they are perhaps “soulmates,” and that each brings to the other a kind of passionate compatibility that their respective spouses are simply cannot provide. That sort of romantic meeting makes their love an ideal, Hollywood-style sort of movie love. And Laura herself certainly seems to regard the relationship in this way. But what if, alternatively, Laura and Alec are simply living unfulfilled lives of quiet desperation from which they seek to escape by latching onto the first candidate who comes along, each regarding the other as an ideal mate simply because they are both desperate to find someone they can regard in this way. If Alec seems perfect for Laura, it might well be because she projects an image of ideality onto him—and vice versa. Then again, what if Alec is simply an opportunist who has not real feelings for Laura but simply senses her vulnerability and decides to try to cash in on it?

Another cynical way of looking at the film might be glossed by the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, who argues that individuals spend their lives searching for a restoration of the imaginary sense of belonging and connection that they experience in infancy. Envisioning the world virtually as an extension of themselves, infants, according to Lacan, thus feel no separation between themselves and the world or other people, with the mother typically serving as the focal point for this sense of connection. Once that connection is broken as the infant matures, the child experiences a profound sense of loss and will then spend the rest of his or her days seeking to re-establish that infantile sense of connection and oneness, with all desire objects (such as romantic partners) standing in as replacements for that original ideal object, which Lacan labels the objet a. This process, however, can never be fully successful, and individuals will spend the rest of their lives feeling a lack as a result of the absence of the objet a.

Looking back to Freud (Lacan’s central inspiration), this inability to re-establish connection with the objet a very much resembles the frustration of fundamental individual desires that Freud sees as necessary for civilization to function. One way of putting this is that Laura, in order to play the role dictated for her by proper bourgeois British society, must ultimately settle for life with the bland and boring Fred instead of the more dashing and exciting Alec. But it also suggests that, were she somehow able to be with Alec, then that relationship would ultimately prove disappointing as well. Indeed, perhaps Alec only seems dashing and exciting to Laura because she desperately wants to meet someone who is. We might note, for example, that she seems much impressed by his devotion to preventive medicine, clearly romanticizing what is really quite an unromantic, if admirable, vocation[9].

Laura clearly wants to find Alec a romantic figure, just as she wants to believe that the feelings that pass between them are something special. Indeed, while Laura’s brief flirtation with Alec might be taken as a momentary cry of protest against the conformist bourgeois ideology that governs her ordinary daily life, the fact is that even the shape of her fantasies remains well within the bounds of this ideology. What is perhaps the most chilling aspect of this film is that Laura remains so much in the thrall of bourgeois ideology even when she is seemingly revolting against it. She has internalized not only conventional bourgeois morality but also conventional bourgeois fantasy of escape from that morality. Here, her most important predecessor in Western literature is probably Emma Bovary, the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary (1856)—and perhaps the most famous adulteress in Western literature. Emma goes all the way into adultery—and suicide—while Laura stops short, but what Emma shares with Laura is that she contemplates both adultery and suicide because of the romantic visions of both activities that she has internalized from her excessively simplistic reading of romantic literature. After all, while we learn little about the specific works that might have influenced Laura, we do know she is a devotee of Romantic poetry. Moreover, she is an avid reader and is frequently shown reading during the course of Brief Encounter, suggesting that the boredom she experiences in her life with Fred might have arisen out of a disappointment that this life is not like the lives she has been reading about in books.

Other than her familiarity with Keats, the only specific knowledge we have about Laura’s reading material comes from her excitement to learn that Miss Lewis, the librarian at Boots, has saved the new Kate O’Brien novel for her. O’Brien was an Irish writer whose works, as Dyer puts it, are largely about “the conflict between romance and everyday life” (44). This thematic focus would certainly make the O’Brien novel that Laura so looks forward to reading a perfect gloss on the film. Meanwhile, the fact that Laura was already a fan of O’Brien’s fiction even before she met Alec suggests the extent to which she might have been primed and ready for a romantic adventure that might relieve the tedium of her domestic life, making her an easy target if Alec is, in fact, an unscrupulous seducer.

We see other forms of culture in the film as well. On the second afternoon that Alec and Laura spend together (after one aborted “date” when Alec fails to show), they again go to the movies at the Palladium Cinema. They enjoy a laugh together as they enjoy a Donald Duck cartoon, presumably because the seemingly anarchic spirit of that character resonates with their sense of being involved in a slightly naughty adventure. Donald Duck cartoons were quite popular in British cinemas from their introduction in the mid-1930s through their sometime use during World War II as anti-Nazi propaganda vehicles[10]. Indeed, Donald Duck has been singled out by some Marxist critics as an exemplar of the way in which American popular culture, especially that which is produced by the Walt Disney Company, subtly conveys the ideals of consumer capitalism and thus ultimately serves as a carrier of bourgeois ideology, especially when it is exported to the developing world, where it serves as an imperialist marker of American/capitalist superiority[11]. Things are not always what they seem in Brief Encounter, which should come as no surprise given its central concern with bourgeois ideology, one of the main characteristics of which is its complexity, multiplicity, and ability to disguise its true motivations.

After the cartoon, Laura and Alec view a fictional film called Flames of Passion[12], a trailer for which they had viewed in their first trip to the cinema together[13]. The title, of course, is so overtly relevant to their apparent situation that its aptness could not possibly be lost on the characters. Moreover, if Donald Duck cartoons are subtly imperialist, this film is overtly so. Set in Africa, it seems to be a particularly lurid example of the kind of colonial romance that had been popular in Britain since the days of Rider Haggard in the late nineteenth century. We see little of the actual plot of the film, but what we do see conveys enough to indicate the kind of film it is, featuring such motifs as a captive white woman imperiled by savage Africans (though we can presumably expect that she will ultimately be saved by a white hero, this rescue then setting the titular flames of passion into motion for the hero and the rescued damsel).

Among other things, the introduction of this film foreshadows Alec’s later retreat to Africa, providing a remind that Africa (and the colonies in general[14]) served for the British middle classes at this time as a place where they could perhaps have adventures unavailable in bourgeois Britain (with its “butcher round one corner, a policeman round another,” as Conrad had put it nearly half a century earlier). But the colonies also served as a sort of safety valve to which they could retreat if things were not going well for them in Britain itself. In particular, they served as a place where individuals could get a fresh start, often advancing more rapidly in their careers than they could back in Britain, where the competition was perhaps more intense.

The film is apparently dreadful, causing Alec and Laura to leave early—though their early departure might be taken to suggest that their romance (at least to them) is nothing like the silly, adventure-style romance being depicted in Flames of Passion. Indeed, if they bond over their mutual enjoyment of the Donald Duck cartoon, they perhaps bond even more over their mutual disdain for this film. Similarly, they also clearly both take a rather condescending pleasure at observing the flirtatious exchanges between Albert and Myrtle. And they share an amused sense of superiority to the less-than-virtuoso performance of a string quartet they observe during their first lunch, especially the rather absurd-looking cello player (played by Irene Handl); they are then are even more amused to discover the same woman playing the organ in the Palladium during the program that features Flames of Passion.

Laura and Alec’s amusement at this local woman performer suggest that they view her as something of a pretentious impostor who is attempting to pass herself off as a more serious  musician than she really is. Of course, one could argue that it is actually Laura and Alec who are being pretentious here, but this motif does resonate with a theme that runs through the film in a complex way. In terms of music, the dramatic Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 that dominates the soundtrack would seem to serve as an emblem of authentic passion, standing in opposition to the labored and banal performances of this poor woman musician. Of course, the most important example of this kind of opposition in the film is presumably the contrast between the authentic passion between Alec and Laura and the bland, labored relationships between each of them and their spouses. But there is clearly room to see the Rachmaninoff concert as itself being extreme and perhaps even ironic, while there are many aspects of the relationship between Alex and Laura that might cause a skeptical viewer to question the authenticity of their love as well.

After Laura and Alec make their early exit from Flames of Passion, they find that it’s a nice day out, despite being winter in England, so they decide to go to the local botanical garden. There, they go boating on the lake, despite the season, and Alec ends up getting his feet wet, causing them to retreat to boathouse, where he dries himself by the stove. It’s an amusing misadventure that appears to draw them closer. Here, they first declare their love for one another, with Alec taking the lead and Laura reluctantly responding in the same way only after he presses her.

After they return to the Milford Junction train station from this outing, Laura and Alec (at his insistence, over her resistance) share a stolen kiss in an underground tunnel, the location and circumstances emphasizing the furtive, subterranean nature of their relationship. After they part and take their separate trains for home, we see Laura riding home alone on her train. For once, her face radiates happiness as she reviews the outing in her mind and begins to imagine possible future adventures with Alec. “I imagined him holding me in his arms. I imagined being with him in all sorts of glamorous circumstances. It was one of those absurd fantasies, just like one has when one is a girl, being wooed and married by the ideal of one’s dreams.” She imagines traveling about the world to various romantic locations with Alec, very much in love and with no complications, “with nothing in the way.” Then she approaches her stop, returning to her staid, bourgeois life with Fred, “and all the silly dreams disappeared.” By the time she prepares to join Fred for dinner, her flight of romantic fantasy has been replaced by a wave of shame and guilt and fear. By the time she enlists the help of a woman friend in providing her with an alibi for the day, it is clear that she is caught up in a web of deception that might be difficult to escape.

The troubled face of Celia Johnson’s Laura.

But she might also be caught up in a web of seduction engineered by Alec, whose inner feelings are never revealed to us[15]. A closer look back over their entire relationship shows that, by the standards of a film made in 1945, Alec is rather aggressive in his pursuit of her, taking the lead at every turn up until his quite overt attempt to lure Laura to Stephen Lynn’s flat, grabbing her and kissing her passionately after she at first declines his advance. As he does so, a powerful locomotive is shown charging across the screen, its whistle blowing, plumes of smoke soaring into the air from its smokestack. Such roaring trains, with their almost unstoppable momentum, are, of course, a conventional symbol of sexual desire and have been used in that way so often that they are by now something of a comical cliché. This train is a bit of a cliché in itself, perhaps providing still another hint that the romance between Alec and Laura is perhaps not as genuine as it appears by providing another opportunity for skeptical viewers to read irony into the film. In any case, it is not surprising that Laura later goes back to the flat after all, and is apparently only saved from disaster by Lynn’s untimely return.

The close call caused by Lynn’s interruption turns out to be the beginning of the end for Alec and Laura. Realizing what might have happened in that flat, Laura—good bourgeois wife that she ultimately is—begins to recoil from the course on which she had appeared to be headed with Alec. He makes a rather weak attempt to convince her to continue their relationship, then backs off and announces his upcoming departure for Africa, thus effectively sealing the end of the affair. The most obvious reading of Alec’s departure for Africa is that he does truly love Laura but realizes he can’t have her, so he heads out for the colonies for a fresh start. A more cynical reading, though, would suggest that he was really planning to move to Africa all along and that he simply uses this moment as an excuse to announce his departure, making it sound noble[16]. In any case, the affair ends, and Laura heads home to her husband.

The film itself then ends as the Rachmaninoff plays one last time, this time with a weeping Laura in the arms of Fred, the sanctity and stability of her bourgeois marriage having been restored.

In a sense, the fact that the love affair at the heart of Brief Encounter can be read in widely differing ways, none of them supported with absolute certainty by the film itself, is absolutely appropriate. After all, in any such encounter between new lovers who know very little about each other, there is always going to be a significant amount of uncertainty, though this uncertainty also contributes to a mystery that potentially makes the encounter more exciting. That this particular encounter ultimately comes to nought (though one could argue that it has a major effect on Alec’s life, if Laura really is the reason he is going to Africa) is also perhaps not surprising, given the habitually repressed situation of the members of Britain’s middle class. In any case, whether one adopts the conventional reading of the film as sentimental or a contrarian view of the film as cynical (perhaps unintentionally), it is hard to argue against the notion that Brief Encounter is one of the greatest works of British cinema.


De Beauregard, Raphaëlle Costa. “Intimacy Shared in Laughter and Tears in Brief Encounter and The Seven Year Itch.” Intimacy in Cinema: Critical Essays on English Language Films. Eds. David Roche and Isabelle Schmitt-Pitiot, McFarland, 2014, pp. 73–83.

Dorfman, Ariel, and Armad Mattelart. How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic. 1971. Trans. David Kunzle, Pluto Press, 2020.

Dyer, Richard. Brief Encounter. 2nd ed. Palgrave Macmillan for the British Film Institute, 2015.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. 1930. Trans. James Strachey. W. W. Norton, 2010.

Medhurst, Andy. “That Special Thrill: Brief Encounter, Homosexuality and Authorship.” Screen, Vol. 32, No. 2, 1991, pp. 197–208.

O’Connor, Sean. Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan. Cassell, 1998.

Puckett, Kent. War Pictures: Cinema, Violence, and Style in Britain, 1939–1945. Fordham University Press, 2017.

Thomson, David. “Brief Encounter: No 1 Best Romantic Film of All Time.” The Guardian, Oct. 16, 2010. Accessed January 18, 2020.

White, Rob. The Third Man. British Film Institute, 2003.


[1] Among its other accolades, Brief Encounter was named the best romantic film of all time by England’s Guardian newspaper. See Thomson.

[2] This scene reportedly exercised an influence on American film as a central inspiration for Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

[3] We perhaps learn little about Alec’s family situation because the information we receive in the film essentially comes from Laura, while Laura herself probably knows very little about Alec’s home life.

[4] See de Beauregard for a discussion of the ways in which this concerto is appropriate to the film and in particular to the ways in which it resonates with Laura’s moods (78–80).

[5] See Puckett for a discussion of the relevance of the war to the film. For Puckett, the war contributes to the “tense, expectant, and mournful mood” of the film (137). Indeed, his argument is that Brief Encounter should, in fact, be considered a war film.

[6] Note that Laura was not present at this encounter and does not appear to have been told about it by Alec. We can surmise, then, that the encounter is included in the film as Laura imagines it might have been from the retrospective position from which she narrates the film.

[7] The decriminalization of male homosexual conduct in England and Wales occurred in 1967, though this decriminalization did not extend to the entire United Kingdom until 1982.

[8] For an extended, nuanced discussion of the role Coward’s sexuality might have played in this film, see Medhurst.

[9] Richard Dyer suggests that Laura here might perhaps simply be pretending to be so impressed by Alec’s work, assuming he will be pleased. For him, the “unconvincingness” of the scene “speaks of the lengths women have to go to please men” (43).

[10] Disney cartoons in general were quite popular in British cinemas. Alfred Hitchcock acknowleddged this popularity in his 1936 film Sabotage (an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent), in which British characters pop into a theater to watch the comic murderous violence of Disney’s Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935), which becomes a commentary on the content of the Hitchcock film and the Conrad novel.

[11] The most important work in this vein is How to Read Donald Duck, by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, first published in 1971.

[12] Not to be confused with Richard Kwietniowski short 1989 film of the same title. Kwietniowski’s film is, in fact, a retelling of the story of Brief Encounter centered on the experience of two gay lovers.

[13] The copyright designation on the title screen of this film identifies its release year as 1938 (the year before the British entered World War II), which is probably the most specific information in Brief Encounter concerning the timing of its setting. If the year is 1938, then the Donald Duck cartoon they see would likely be “Donald’s Better Self,” released in that year. Importantly, this carton finds Donald’s conscience battling with his “anti-conscience” concerning whether or not he should behave properly.

[14] By the late 1930s, when the film is perhaps set, South Africa was no longer, strictly speaking, under British rule, its independence having been recognized in the Declaration of 1926. But it still retained strong connections to Britain, even though the colonial history of the British in South Africa was a very troubled one.

[15] Dyer even goes so far as to note that some viewers have seen Laura’s entire “confession” as a fantasy construction, suggesting that Alec does not exist at all, or at least that she has had no relationship with him.

[16] Of course, any nobility here would be with regard to Laura. One could argue that Alec dragging his wife and kids to Africa, thus disrupting their lives just to escape his mistress, is not noble at all from the point of view of Alec’s role as husband and father. Then again, a still more cynical reading would suggest that Alec isn’t going to Africa at all, but merely announces his departure to Laura so that he will have an excuse not to continue seeing her, now that she is beginning to prove difficult.