At the beginning of the film Manhattan, Woody Allen, referring to the city, says “…I romanticised it out of all proportion.”
That’s a bit like how I have dealt with love throughout my life. I have romanticised it out of all proportion. I have tried wooing women like Heathcliff by growing my hair long and walking the moors. This was at the time I lived in Cwmbran, where moors are distinctly absent, so I used to walk along fourteen locks canal which was a poor substitute.
So I have always been up for a bit of wooing and a bit of old-fashioned romance. Why, at the age of 41, I still had not watched Brief Encounter, remains a mystery. I was always aware of it. I accepted it was regarded as a classic and it was on my list of ‘100 films to watch before I die’ at No.73, just below Pete’s Dragon but above Heaven’s Gate.
A few days ago it was on TCM and I had recorded it. This afternoon, it started to rain. Rain, particularly on a Monday afternoon, always puts me in the mood to watch a black & white movie. I am not usually at home on Monday afternoons but I am coming to the end of my annual leave, so this particular rainy Monday, I was free.
I browsed through my list of films and spotted Brief Encounter so, after making a very large mug of hot chocolate, I settled down to watch it with Joni (my cat) who took up residence on the other sofa.
Within minutes I was transfixed. The principal setting, that of a railway station, was immediately appealing. In 1945, a railway station meant steam engines. It meant ticket inspectors with handlebar moustaches and waiting rooms that were also mini off-licences. It meant Nestle chocolate machines where a bar of chocolate was 2d (two pence) and station master’s and porters and a quintessential English charm that is sadly lacking from most train station’s today.
The principal actors, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, were not that familiar to me and yet I was soon impressed by their performances. That repressed emotion that is attributed to us by foreigners – that ‘stiff upper lip’ – was conveyed delicately and powerfully and the chemistry between the two actors was perfect. I believed in them, which surely has to be the greatest praise that any actor can hear.
The story itself I found surprisingly daring for 1945. It was basically all about an affair. Both characters were married and yet both consented to embark on this clandestine love affair. The fact that it was never consummated and all they did was kiss, made it even more powerful. Proof, if ever there was, that you don’t need graphic sex scenes to tell a story. You don’t even need implied sex scenes to tell a story. All you need is the ability to convey a constant sexual tension between the two main protagonists and, if done well, that is all you need to create compelling storytelling.
The story was told without attempting to preach a message about infidelity. It was told objectively, without judgement. I was carried along, scene after beautiful scene, following the lives of these characters and wondering how it would end. Would they get together and live happily ever after, like a Mills & Boons romance? Would it have a more daring, tragic end, like Wuthering Heights?
Well, not to give away the ending for those who have yet to see it, the ending lies somewhere in-between. Not so slushy as to diminish what went on before, and yet no so tragic as to make you want to watch a Laurel & Hardy movie straight afterwards to help cope with your grief. The ending was poignant and thoughtful and left me thinking I had just watched one of the greatest movies ever made.
My encounter with Brief Encounter was all too brief. I am left wondering about those characters now, even though the film has ended. In my imagination, I am devising future scenes, chance meetings and another fateful kiss, between Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey.