For a film that regularly features in polls of the greatest-ever British movies (at number 2 in the BFI-compiled Top 100 List), Brief Encounter can still generate mixed reactions from many film fans and critics. To some it is a stagey, stilted and dated period-piece, ripe for ridicule and easily lampooned: Victoria Wood's parody is a particularly good example, although her affection for the film shines through this updating of the story. To others, this writer included, Brief Encounter is a masterpiece, artfully directed and edited by David Lean, perfectly cast, and beautifully acted. It is a tour de force of cinematic narrative, building a sense of place and atmosphere to create a world that the viewer can inhabit for the film's duration, an absorption that produces that dull ache in the stomach and slight feeling of loss when a film (or book, or piece of music for that matter) that has really gripped you comes to an end.
The film is often described as typically English. Jeremy Paxman highlights this aspect in the introductory paragraphs of his book The English, where he seeks to identify the generally accepted characteristics of Englishness. He reels off a list of attributes--real or imagined-- of the English pysche which are also key themes of the film. These include a sense of duty, obligation and restraint, and the ability, perhaps even the predilection, to disavow emotion and passion in favour of doing 'the right thing.'
Such is the fate of the two main characters, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). Both happily married to other people, their impromptu Thursday afternoon meetings at Milford Junction train station lead them to the brink of adultery. That they never consummate their affair is fundamental, not only to the romantic 'impossible love' storyline, but also to any reading of the film as a representation of what the English seem (or seemed) to want to tell themselves and the rest of the world about their supposed national characteristics. By their own volition, the protagonists refuse to allow their relationship to develop further, as thoughts of family responsibility and the impossible weight of guilt overpower the strength of their feelings for each other. Their love brings them very little joy and much misery, with Laura brought to the brink of throwing herself in front of a train.
The supposed English obsession with class and social status is represented in the story-lines of two contrasting couples: the respectable middle-class housewife and the debonair but earnest doctor (whose accents and manners, combined with their sense of propriety, conceal the passion that they truly feel for each other), and the working-class couple, the "cheeky chappie" railway porter (Stanley Holloway) and the pretentious refreshment room buffet manageress (Joyce Carey), whose earthier exchanges similarly disguise their mutual affection. Here, the film hints at class differences in morals and attitudes. As Carey's character tells the waitress Beryl how she came to leave her husband, Laura and Alex eavesdrop with evident relish. Are we to take from this scene that there was one rule for the middle-class and quite another for the less complicated and restrained working-class?
Despite the relief provided by the comic scenes between Holloway and Carey there is a pervasive melancholy, not just in the plot itself, but also emphasised by the black-and-white cinematography and the drab routine of suburban respectability: Laura's regular Thursday visits to Boots Lending Library to change her books, the mild escapism of an afternoon at the cinema, the return to domestic predictability and the homely but dull charm of her unemotional husband Fred, fixated on his newspaper crossword, hearth and home. To be English is to live in and be constrained by the English climate: Laura daydreams, whilst on the train, of being in Paris and Venice with Alec, and suggests that we would be different, less shy, if we lived in sunnier climes. There is also a feeling of loneliness: neither main character has a true friend in whom they can confide. The film's message seems to be that no-one else would understand the affair, so it is best to say nothing.
Critics of the film may have a point in questioning the contemporary relevance of its depiction of the attitudes and values of a world that no longer exists, and probably never did. However, whether you are susceptible to its peculiarly English romantic melancholia or not, Brief Encounter endures through Lean's masterful direction, classic story-telling and stunning use of music-- the film is unimaginable without Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2—and Celia Johnson's performance in particular. Most of all, Brief Encounter offers the viewer something of what its leading characters experience: a taste of romance, a fleeting glimpse of escape, of another possible life.--Steve Cox
Sources: Brownlow, Kevin. David Lean: A Biography. Faber & Faber, 1997. Fox, Kate. Watching The English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Holder & Stoughton, 2005. Organ, Steven, ed. David Lean: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers). University Press of Mississippi, 2009. Paxman, Jeremy. The English: A Portrait of a People. Penguin Books, 1999.
Steve Cox comes from Swindon and is the frontman for the folk-pop group Mr Love and Justice, whom we profiled in 2005. A review of their album Watchword was also published last year. --The Editor
Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977
Dir: Various (BFI DVD)
Although not comparable to the BFI's extraordinary Free Cinema set, this collection of public information films is nonetheless indispensable to anyone with an interest in post-war history, capturing the atmosphere of an exhausted but cautiously hopeful nation and identifying a number of key preoccupations. The four-disc set is accompanied by a hundred-page booklet, containing essays by figures including Dominic Sandbrook. It is impossible to cover every film in the space of this review, so what follows necessarily focusses on the highlights.
The collection is notable for its many industrial documentaries (such as the magnificent Stone into Steel, 1960) and 1952's The Island is one of the most famous, financed by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company to promote the new Kent Oil Refinery on the Isle of Grain. Although regarded as a classic, its script and voiceovers provoke unintended amusement until mid-way through the film. The first narrator, a tankerman, sounds tremendously bored, in contrast to the brash and bouncy executive who follows him, and then the local vicar, whose commentary lurches into Cold Comfort Farm territory ("Tiny communities are quick to notice intrusion, even if it's a harmless birdwatcher on the moors," he observes suspiciously). A gung-ho engineer explains, "As a check, a week ago we drove a steel pile into the ground, and now we're watching it day and night," with the result, he promises, that you will soon be able to "see the oil come out of the ground for yourself." The distracting commentary aside, however, the film does contain some stunning nature photography. Although not strictly an industrial film, David (1951) is an intensely moving portrait of a Welsh miner and the tragedies that he confronts. The Shetland Experience, from 1977, is a striking examination of the process by which the islanders reached an agreement about the drilling of North Sea oil.
One interesting feature of this phase of documentary film making is its focus on the vulnerable. The rights of women and children form a major theme. The former is the subject of To Be a Woman (1951), about the struggle for equality in the world of work and politics, and 1958's Birthright, a film by the Indian-born Sarah Erulkar for the Family Planning Association (she also contributes the exciting and vibrantly colourful Picture to Post, 1969, a look at the development of the iconic Queen's Head Stamp). The films about children, both funded by the NSPCC, are very touching. 1961's They Took us to the Sea by John Krish documents the temporary rescue of a number of Birmingham children: a day trip to the seaside. It has great freshness, charm and warmth, the camera intimately capturing each individual child's reactions, making its point by juxtaposing the urban wasteland of their normal playground with the liberation of the seashore as the young trippers become progressively more alive. The laughing children on the screen contrast with the sparse narration by a jaded little Birmingham voice: "Somebody else'll be going next year. If he's lucky." Henry (1955) is the story of a small Cockney who runs away from home one night because of his parents' arguments. Partly an impressionistic look at London nightlife through a child's eyes, partly a reproachful warning of the dangers that the adult world poses to children, Henry is ultimately a funding appeal for the NSPCC. When Henry is rescued by an NSPCC worker, we are told that life will improve for him because the NSPCC know that "behind most children who do things they shouldn't are homes where parents do things they shouldn't." At the time the organisation provided help to 100 000 children nationwide every year.
Another marginalised group, the elderly, are the focus of I Think They Call Him John, 1964, Krish's portrait of a childless widower's lonely life in an impersonal London highrise. It is edited by Kevin Brownlow, who also directed Winstanley. The script is minimal but brilliant, allowing John Ronson's daily routine its full poignancy: he puts his budgie out on the balcony, murmuring to it lovingly, goes about his daily chores, and in the evening brings the budgie back indoors and turns on the television. The viewer begins to realise that for him, housework has become a means of filling the vacuum left by his wife. "On a Sunday, like today, they would go out, or just enjoy the double quietness of each other, now a single silence." The camera pans slowly to show photographs of dead relatives in heart-shaped frames, a close-up of the wedding ring on John's hand, and his Home Guard certificate. He is doubly haunted by the loss of his wife and the memory of the gas in the First World War trenches: "His memory prods him like a bayonet." The present has moved on without him, and he is surrounded by testimonies to a life now largely marooned in the past; the well-worn Edwardian classics on his shelf contrast with a loud and inane television show that clearly mystifies him. He has been alone for nine years, the narration notes, and comments accusingly, "The old are an army of strangers we have no intention of joining....if we don't care, who will learn to care?" It is a question still as relevant today as then.
The infinitely touching Thursday's Children, 1954, is a look at deaf education, with a compassionate commentary read by Richard Burton. It is superbly directed by Lindsay Anderson, with lyrical and sensitive camerawork from Walter Lassally (whom we previously interviewed in connection with his Free Cinema work). Similarly, People Apart (1957) examines the experience of epilepsy sufferers and shows the impact of different personality types on coping strategies. The social stigma then associated with the condition—difficulties in getting work, and the cruelty and misunderstanding of the outside world-- emerges as perhaps an even greater problem than epilepsy itself. "It made my life so lonely," observes one interviewee. There Was a Door, from the same year, examines the struggles of those with learning disabilities, and the tension between institutionalisation and community integration. Many of these films, such as 1968's Time Out of Mind, about the treatment of the mentally ill, are a paean to the medical profession. 1960's Return to Life, by John Krish, is one of the best films in the set. It looks at the experience of a refugee family (played by real, but unrelated refugees), and begins with the history of flight to England over the centuries. The film is a penetrating examination of displacement's psychological effects: fear, uncertainty, and the "cold tight pain" of finding out that back 'home,' there is no family left. These are people who, although they cling desperately to each other, "don't talk very much, because they have lost the habit" during years spent in the refugee camp. The film illuminates behaviour that many in the host society might have struggled to understand, such as terror of the police and reluctance to carry identity papers. The contrast between the father and mother is interesting. Joseph's paranoia and fear make him vulnerable, and lead him to insist that the family stay together all the time, while Anna ploughs forward with desperate determination. Their interview by the Ministry of Labour is particularly interesting: Anna's obvious pride in Joseph's accomplishments, in that previous existence from which he now feels disconnected, clearly charms the interviewers and contrasts poignantly with Joseph's own insecurities. The film is a superb companion piece to the 1959 Free Cinema film about a Hungarian refugee, Refuge England by Robert Vas.
This collection covers lighter subjects as well. Sunday by the Sea (1953), directed by Anthony Simmons, is a portrait of gregarious Londoners hellbent on seaside fun: swimming, sailing toy boats, enjoying dangerous rides, and eating candy floss. It accomplishes the rare feat of marrying cheerfulness with poetry. Lassally's lyrical closeups here bear comparison with his splendid work in the Free Cinema film Every Day Except Christmas, and the film is soundtracked appropriately by music-hall songs such as A Little of What You Fancy and Ain't It Nice. It is an interesting corrective to Dreamland, Lindsay Anderson's far more famous, and very queasy, view of working-class pleasures. In a similar vein, The Elephant Will Never Forget is an engaging look at the retirement of the London trams in 1952 and their place in Cockney affections, recording the huge party which commemorated the last run. 1964's Portrait of Queenie is a deeply affecting portrait of the well-known Isle of Dogs blues singer Queenie Watts and her thriving pub, a legend at the time. There is no better place than a pub in which to observe human incident, and the film delights the viewer not only with its music but also through character vignettes of the various patrons. As a snapshot of working-class musical culture on the cusp of the Beatles revolution, it is fascinating: music-hall intertwines with jazz standards, calypso, country and western and Billy Fury-esque rock n' roll. Most intriguing of all, however, is Queenie herself, whose jolliness is always offset by the deep melancholy of her face. Her plaintive vocals give the film a poignant coherence.
The development of a better society is a major theme of this set. Faces of Harlow (1964) expresses post-war utopianism, an extended advertisement for one of the New Towns in which many Londoners were resettled following the war. The film shows buildings going up, classical music concerts, children in school and technical colleges, and so on. Underneath all the propaganda, however, there is an abiding sense of the struggle to construct a new community from scratch, hinted at by the frequent descriptions of the settlers as 'pioneers.' Similarly, Education for the Future from 1967 is an optimistic portrait of a new school in Hull at the dawn of the comprehensive system, which was meant to eliminate class disadvantage. The headteacher makes some piercing criticisms of the self-fulfilment problem with classifying children through 11-plus segregation. "If she'd stopped in the other school, she'd maybe have gone to to work at sixteen," he observes of one successful pupil. "If you can't get a pupil to respect himself, he'll not respect other people." It is a movingly innocent film in its belief that class inequalities can be eliminated by educational reform alone. Its hopes and dreams are in short supply in the later documentary Tomorrow's Merseysiders (1974), about the impoverishment of children's lives in a crumbling city.
The film that sums up this collection is 1964's Today in Britain, shot in incredibly sharp colour. It begins with the benign humming of a nuclear power station, and similarly welcomes the discovery of DNA. Even the industrialisation of agriculture is celebrated. This is a film in love with science, that distinctive post-war mood which now seems extremely remote. There is more than a touch of Professor Branestawm about it, particularly when the narrator trumpets "Even teatime may now be automated!" and shows us a tea-making machine in action. Science and engineering are portrayed as decidedly British: the Scottish contribution is feted, while later on, multiplicity in unity is also celebrated with segments on Wales and Northern Island. Benevolent technocracy is not the only national characteristic that stands post-war Britain in good stead, however. Though a small country, it is "curiously various—a cosmopolitan people who have absorbed the races of the world since that last Norman conquest nine centuries ago," living together in a cohesive multiracial society. Then, of course, there is parliamentary democracy, a system which is "odd, archaic and enduring"; freedom of speech, symbolised by Trafalgar Square which is for "people, pigeons and protest"; and London's status as a financial services centre. On the international stage, the UN, the 'winds of change' and the Commonwealth are viewed with idealism and optimism. The narrator argues that the English are becoming increasingly internationalist, and the film tries to scupper the notion that "the English speak no language but their own, and that reluctantly" with footage of a languages school. The expanding educational sector is also cause for cheer: universities and schools are depicted as arenas for international and interracial understanding and collaboration. Not all is unmitigated optimism, however. The camera pans across huge crowds of children, while the narrator comments that the post-war baby boom is "everyone's concern, everyone's pleasure and everyone's problem," and emphasises the desperate need for more housing and an increase in educational capacity. The film, in attempting a God's eye perspective, occasionally seems disconnected: a young woman is shown observing what looks like a prototype of Concorde in a wind tunnel, and then suddenly we are in the middle of a bathing beauty competition, while somewhere else, another young woman reads The Uses of Literacy. It stirringly concludes with a Proms crowd singing Jerusalem, suggesting that Blake would have approved of the post-war project.
Shadows of Progress is a fascinating testament to a time of stress but also belief. Suffering could be alleviated by modern medicine and psychology, industry built up through scientific discoveries, social exclusion banished by comprehensive education and new universities, and thereby, it is implied, a war-scarred country would also heal itself. The films' deep compassion for and interest in each individual-- whether a lonely pensioner, an African student working late into the night, or a frightened refugee-- makes them extraordinary. The nation that emerges from this varied set of portraits is harried but kind-hearted, able to show generosity even in the midst of economic recovery.--Isabel Taylor