Quite by chance recently, I watched Brief Encounter again for the the third time. This is a wonderful film released in 1945, directed by David Lean and starring Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson, a married housewife, and Trevor Howard as an eye doctor, Alec Harvey. The 2 main characters meet quite by chance in the cafe of a train station. Laura has something caught in her eye and Dr. Harvey comes to her rescue. What ensues between them is an emotional affair whose fulfillment is frustrated by time, place and circumstance. It is in the end a heart wrenching film about 2 people who are denied their desire and bliss by the very society in which they live.
I love the use of the train station as the main setting of the film. It functions both in its actuality as well as symbolically. Alec and Laura meet for the first time within the station when he helps her remove the grit from her eye. The station trainmen, Albert Godby says, “It’s probably from a bit of coal.” Thus, in a sense, the fuel of the train (and by extension the train itself, the station and the timetable of trains) initiate their introduction and subsequent affair just as in end it will ultimately frustrate their desire.
The train station, the trains and the train schedule represents symbolically society, its rules, prohibitions and obligations. Indeed, the very first scene of the film shows a trainman checking his pocket watch in order to see if the train racing through the station is on time, i.e. has followed the rules and met its obligations. Within the story of the film, the station, the train and the timetable functions to enforce and uphold middle class values of family, marriage and fidelity.
The train schedule limits and circumscribes the affair between Laura and Alec. It frustrates it, limits it and tries to ultimately end it. For example, when Laura decides to transgress the schedule, miss her train home and instead return to the flat of Alec’s friend, Stephen, to consummate their relationship, it all goes horribly wrong. When she returns Alec is no longer alone; his friend has appeared and Laura leaves. The potential fulfillment of their emotional intimacy is not allowed to occur. It becomes “vulgar” as Alec says to his friend who in turn criticizes the doctor and is offended by his actions. In the end, Laura leaves to catch the next train and the love between her and Alec is not taken to a physical level.
In the end, the rule of society is upheld. The affair is never fulfilled and it ends. Alec is off to South Africa to accept a job offer from his brother. He of course leaves by train. With the end of the affair, Laura is even willing albeit briefly to sacrifice herself to society for her emotional transgression: she almost jumps in front of a train, but stops herself and instead returns home again on the train to her husband and her duties as wife and mother.
There is also an interesting division of class within the film in terms of who is permitted to overstep societal law. Laura and Alec are always contrasted with the cafe refreshment lady, Myrtle Bagot and the trainman, Albert Godby. Myrtle and Albert are in a sense more sexualized or allowed to be more open, more passionate in their flirtatious interactions because of their very lower social class. In contrast, Laura and Alec who are middle class are supposed to uphold societal rules and prohibitions as an example to others. It is interesting to note that after Laura witnesses one of these more natural encounters in the cafe, she is inspired to return to Stephen’s flat to meet Alec and fulfill her desire, but it all goes wrong.
Brief Encounter is a fascinating film both on the level of denotation and connotation. It is an engaging story of romantic love which is ultimately frustrated and unrealized and it speaks to issues of social law and class both in the particular historical moment of post-war England and in a greater way in which individual desire is often circumscribed by society.