Suzanne Camfield takes you on a trip down memory lane with the first of her brand new review series, Golden Oldies. And with Valentine’s Day only a week away, what better place to start than with romantic classic, Brief Encounter…

Set just before the start of the Second World War, Brief Encounter stars Trevor Howard as Alec Harvey, a married doctor, and Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, a suburban housewife with a stable yet boring husband. Both have two children. After meeting at a train station, the couple strike up a friendship and arrange to meet again, only to eventually fall in love and begin an affair. The film is from the perspective of Laura, as she is imagining confessing the affair to her husband.
The film is based on the Noel Coward one-act play Still Life, produced in 1936. The film was released in 1945, and Celia Johnson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress at the 1946 ceremony, but was beaten by Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own. In 1999, Brief Encounter came second in a British Film Institute poll of the Top 100 British films, only beaten by The Third Man (1949).
Brief Encounter is directed by David Lean, one of the most famous English directors of the 20th century, who is well known for his big screen epics, including Laurence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). However, far from one of Lean’s later epics, Brief Encounter has a very basic plot, is filmed in black and white, and has more emphasis on the two leads and their dialogue, as opposed to great scenery or a famous soundtrack. In all, not much actually happens in the film, but the film is so famous and well-loved mainly due to the fantastic acting from the two leads.

Brief encounter poster

Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are perfect at the two lovers. They are aided by an excellent script, but the chemistry between them is there right from the start, so the film is completely believable. They are faced with the dilemma of whether to act on their desire, or to follow their social responsibilities, and you can feel the tension along with the characters throughout the film.
When released, Brief Encounter caused a scandal for its portrayal of an extra-marital affair and desire on the screen. Although released at a time when social norms were changing, as women were finally receiving more sexual and social freedom, it shows perfectly how a taboo subject was represented in 1940s Britain. The film was also banned in Ireland upon release for showing adultery in a sympathetic light.


The question of class is raised subtly throughout the film. Most notably, the question of what would happen in the same situation if the characters were working class. The class system at the time was still a large part of British society, and the idea that the middle classes have more social responsibility to do what is right, and they know their place and how to act, is woven throughout the actions of the two leads. The working classes are portrayed as being more likely to act for their own desires if they were in the same situation.
Brief Encounter is a true British classic, and defiantly a Golden Oldie. It can be watched even after all these years and still remain enjoyable, and has a subject matter that is still relevant today. Anyone wishing to see a romantic drama, Brief Encounter is the perfect film to seek out.
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