A film depicting suburban middle-class England in 1945, just recovering from the war, in which children squabble in cut-glass voices and men’s idea of casual homewear is a jacket and tie complete with pocket handkerchief.
A film whose romantic setting is the refreshment room on Milford Junction railway station. And yet ‘Brief Encounter’, directed by David Lean and based on Noel Coward’s play, tugs at the heartstrings and defies parody and ridicule.
The film is much more clever than it seems. Its structure is sophisticated,with flashbacks held together by Celia Johnson’s compelling voice-over narration as she imagines herself confessing to her wise and gentle husband her near-betrayal of him with idealistic married doctor Alex, played by Trevor Howard. Johnson’s repressed desires are suggested by her liking for the novels of Kate O’Brien, a feminist who wrote about romance and sexuality.
The couple’s passion is evoked through imagery of trains and tunnels and dim passages, culminating in the final image of of a distraught and wide-eyed Johnson almost throwing herself under the express train which thunders through the station, the insistent rhythm of its clattering wheels echoing the discordant clamour in her head and her anguish at Howard’s departure.
Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto brings swooning romanticism to their brief meetings. The restraint of the farewell gesture, Alex’s hand on her shoulder, is painfully affecting.
Johnson’s personal journey as she discovers passion and finds that she is capable of violent feelings, reflective self-analysis and inventive lying, contrasts with the well-observed details of a social world.
Women of her class punctuate their weeks with shopping, cinema visits, light lunches of soup and fried sole at the Kardomah, a popular chain of coffee shops which died out in the 1960s, and visits to Boots Lending Library. This was a subscription scheme run by Boots the Chemist.
For a fee, the upper and middle class could borrow books which were housed in the back of the store or on the first floor, and subscribers were promised personal service and clean books. The last one closed in 1966.
Other classes are represented by the station staff, the cheeky guard with the heart of gold played by the wonderful Stanley Holloway, whose banter with the refreshment room hostess, including a playful slap on the backside, is an earthy contrast to the clipped tones and repressed feelings of Johnson and Howard. The strangulated vowels and mock-genteel tones of the hostess suggest the desire to move up in the social scale.
Johnson’s decision to stay with her husband asserts the values of self-respect and decency and the redemptive power of moral courage. Family, stability, roots, sense and responsibility trump romantic feelings. Noel Coward’s screenplay hovers around the edges of forbidden love but goes no further. Gay in his private life and aware of his audience’s sensibilities, he would not push the couple or the public’s tolerance too far.
One of the film’s producers, Anthony Havelock-Allan, was married to Valerie Hobson, who then became the wife of John Profumo, a main player in the political scandal of 1963.
The contrast between the personal and social values embodied by the characters in Brief Encounter and the seedy glamour of spies, politicians, sex, shootings, night-club hostesses, call girls, aristocrats which characterised the Profumo Affair couldn’t be stronger.
In Brief Encounter, Celia Johnson wore sensible hats, albeit at a jaunty angle. Compare these with the headgear Mandy Rice-Davies sported at her court appearances during the Profumo affair, and You might find some photos at Scandal 63 at the National Portrait Gallery.
If you live in hope of meeting a handsome doctor on a railway station, visit the Brief Encounter Refreshment Room at Carnforth Station in Lancashire, where the film was shot. It’s unlikely that you will be able to buy a tot of brandy for 10d to buck you up, though, as Celia Johnson did. Tearooms, like so much else, were different in those days.