Inside Story

The Brief Encounter that goes on and on…

Cinema | Has any other film resonated across the decades in so many cultural fields? Brian McFarlane investigates the Brief Encounter phenomenon

Brian McFarlane 3 May 2016 4084 words

Emotional resonance: Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in David Lean’s Brief Encounter.

“We know we love each other. That’s all that really matters.”

“It’s not all that really matters. Other things matter too, self-respect matters, and decency. I can’t go on any longer.”

Quoted out of context, this exchange between Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) and Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) in the 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter may sound almost banal. But it dramatises a simple truth: that there is more to life than personal gratification – and it is this, perhaps, that accounts for the endless echoes the film has generated in the seventy-odd years since it was first screened. No doubt Brief Encounter had filmed predecessors, but I am concerned here with its successors, whether full-scale or in various – and multifarious – quotations across the media and beyond.

The film’s origins were in Noël Coward’s one-act play, Still Life, part of his Tonight at 8.30 compendium first performed at the Phoenix Theatre, London, in 1936. Still Life now seems utterly appropriate as a title for a play that is stiff with restraint, its confinement to a railway-station waiting room creating an airlessness at odds with the emotional resonance of the film.

For those unfamiliar with the 1945 film – the loss is theirs and should be quickly repaired – here is a very brief account of its narrative substance. Middle-class housewife Laura, after a day’s shopping in her provincial town, is waiting for the train to take her home when a speck of grit from a passing train lodges in her eye. In the station’s buffet, Dr Alec Harvey removes the fragment, and on subsequent meetings they fall in love. Before this love can be consummated, they are interrupted by an unexpected arrival; she runs to the station, Alec follows her, and the exchange quoted above takes place; she then returns to her kind, rather conventional husband. The film is told in an extended flashback, and it has been suggested that it is no more than a dream on Laura’s part; but even if that were so, it would not lessen its emotional power.

The film’s most obvious – and most ludicrous – successor is the 1974 telemovie remake, improbably starring Sophia Loren and Richard Burton. If you want to make a touching drama about love and renunciation in a quiet English setting (and director Alan Bridges could have been just the man for the job), you’d perhaps think twice about casting an international sex symbol and a noted lothario as the leads. Intertextuality matters when we watch a film: we can’t put aside all the information we bring to bear on it. Sometimes this can intensify our viewing experience; but not here. John Bowen’s screenplay retains some of the dialogue of the original but in the new circumstances – Alec is given a 1970s interest in “environmental pollution” and Laura (now Anna) is set up as a Citizens’ Advice Bureau volunteer – it tends to sound merely old-fashioned. Burton and Loren exude a glamour that makes their restraint seem improbable, but the point is that the two stars wanted to take on what Burton’s biographer, Paul Ferris, described as “a reckless venture.” The prestige attaching to the title must have been enough to attract them.

The two theatrical versions of the 1945 film each bear the title of Brief Encounter, and each owes more to the film than to Coward’s play, though they retain elements of the latter. The fact that the newer title is attached to those projects is further evidence of the film’s reputation. I missed the 2008 dramatisation, widely performed in Britain and the United States by the Kneehigh Theatre and staged at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre in 2013, but saw the 1996 version when it was performed at London’s Lyric Theatre in 2000, starring Jenny Seagrove and Christopher Cazenove. Without seriously challenging the reputation of their famous predecessors, they made an attractive and convincing pair of conflicted would-be lovers; with no attempt at updating, the shift in moral climate since 1945 was not an issue.

Long before, radio dramatisations had featured such high-profile screen players as Greer Garson – twice, in 1946 and 1948 – and Olivia de Havilland in 1951. An almost bewildering number of big names (including Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and David Niven) seem to have been drawn to the prestige of the screen title. They were not playing Still Life but the enlarged version for the film, the screenplay of which was of course primarily Coward’s work, even if what appeared so potently on the screen in 1945 seems chiefly attributable to director David Lean, cinematographer Robert Krasker, Eileen Joyce’s rendering of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto in A and, perhaps above all, the matchless pairing of Johnson and Howard.

In a conversation about the enduring phenomenon of Brief Encounter, a friend suggested that perhaps Casablanca might be a strong challenger. Everyone remembers (or slightly misremembers) “Play it again” and “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” the latter spoken by Humphrey Bogart (to Claude Rains) as his erstwhile lover Ingrid Bergman goes off with her brave resistance worker husband (Paul Henreid). And there’s a whiff of the Coward ending even there, but I doubt if this hugely popular wartime success has spawned quite as many successors across the media – and elsewhere. The sheer star power of the Bogart–Bergman combination means that the iconic ordinariness of Brief Encounter is not part of Casablanca’s emotional charge.


Some movies seem to have Lean’s film in mind as they pursue their central situations – or, at least, I find it hard to view them without the earlier classic in mind – and other films quote directly from it. Among the latter, the one that comes to mind first is Melvin Frank’s A Touch of Class (1973); others include Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply (1990), Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane (2007) and Nicholas Hytner’s The History Boys (2008), and on TV, Last Tango in Halifax (2015). By “quoting” from the film, I mean that scenes from the 1945 black-and-white classic are inserted into the films’ narratives or, in the case of The History Boys, the last moments of Brief Encounter are acted out by some film-mad schoolboys.

In A Touch of Class, Vickie (Glenda Jackson), a divorced “fashion thief,” embarks tentatively on an affair with Steve (George Segal), a married insurance broker, on the understanding, at least on her part, that there will be no commitment involved. Naturally, what follows proves less than straightforward, but here it is played for comedy. At one point, without warning, we see a scene from Brief Encounter playing on the television, with Alec telling Laura he is heading for Africa, and then the camera pulls back to reveal Vickie and Steve blubbing as they watch. The old film comically provides a perspective on what was, in the film’s advertising line, “the perfect love affair – until they fell in love.”

In Truly Madly Deeply, Nina (Juliet Stevenson) is still in a state of grief at the death of husband Jamie (Alan Rickman) when he suddenly reappears from the hereafter, and in very corporeal form. The key line may be Nina’s “Thank you for coming back,” even if he brings along a group of his friends from the world beyond (leading to Nina’s bemusedly querying the notion of “dead people in my living room watching videos”). But the first quoted line is the one that matters, because one of the videos they are watching (and Nina joins them) is Brief Encounter. The extract is from the latter’s last moments, when Laura’s kind husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) initiates this exchange:

“Whatever your dream was, it wasn’t a very happy one was it.”


“If there’s anything I can do to help…”

“You always help me.”

“You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.”

As in Brief Encounter, there is an acceptance of what has gone before and a tentative approach to what may lie ahead for Nina and the amiable Mark (Michael Maloney).

Talk of “endings” in the senior class in The History Boys leads to an impromptu rendering (preceded by a burst of Rachmaninoff on the classroom piano) of the final scene in Brief Encounter, when one boy, Posner (Samuel Barnett), leaps to his feet, pretends to be Laura teetering on the edge of the station platform, and of suicide, but says he just “couldn’t do it.” “I wasn’t brave enough. I’d like to be able to say it was because of you [Fred] and the children, but it wasn’t… I had no desire ever to feel anything again.” He is then joined by another boy acting Fred’s comforting words (see above). Now this is all done for rather campy satire, but the echo of that unforgettable ending is still almost absurdly moving, especially when we know that Posner nourishes an unrequited passion for another boy – and even when we know it will end in a burst of raucous laughter.

For a brief moment in Sarah Gavron’s touching film Brick Lane, the television is playing but no one is watching. A black-and-white film is screening, and it is a scene from Brief Encounter in which Fred, Laura’s prosaic husband, is asking her to turn down the music a little, just after she has recalled the moment when Alec has told her, “I love you so.” It is all quite fleeting, but the quotation subtly points us to how we should be reading Brick Lane. Is Brief Encounter, then, the archetypal film rendering of the unexpected love that surprises the people in the later film, and of a love that they turn away from as Laura and Alec do?

A young Bangladeshi woman, Nazneen Ahmed (Tannishtha Chatterjee), has been wrenched from an idyllic childhood and sent to London for an arranged marriage with a much older, kind but dull man, Chanu Ahmed (Satish Kaushik). Nazneen, resigned to her life in London’s East End, falls tremulously in love with a young man come to repair her sewing machine. He, Karim (Christopher Simpson), reciprocates her feeling; they make love, which the film records in a sensuous montage at some remove from the usual carnal couplings of contemporary films. Her newfound love means she no longer yearns for the return home that the husband has promised. This situation, with its echoes of Brief Encounter, becomes emotionally complex: the film moves to a poignant climax in which a voice-over reflects on being “torn between two worlds” (Laura might not have expressed it so, but it is true of her as well) and “different kinds of love.”

The last “quotation” I know of was in the TV miniseries Last Tango in Halifax, in which Alan (Derek Jacobi), who has had his own brief encounter many years before, is slumped on a couch while on television Lean’s film is soundlessly playing. In its fleeting way, it offers a comment on Alan’s past brief encounters, which have recently caught up with him. And can it be a coincidence that one of these is called Celia, who has actually been watching the film in the preceding shot?


In 1980, Granada Television produced an adaptation of Paul Scott’s novel Staying On, about a couple still living in India long after Tusker, the husband, has retired into grumpy old age. His wife Lucy makes the best of things but yearns for their earlier Indian life or, further back, for the life she knew in England. This story hasn’t much in common with Brief Encounter, but, because it stars Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, together again thirty-five years later, the echoes are inevitable. Could Laura and Alec have had a life like this? After all, he was destined for foreign fields and Lucy, a vicar’s daughter, had been beguiled by his glamour as a young officer, glamour now long worn off.

But it’s other kinds of echo that concern me here. Titles such as Cairo Time (2009), Mademoiselle Chambon (2009), Weekend (2011), The Lunchbox (2013) and Learning to Drive (2014) come effortlessly to mind, and former Sunday Age reviewer Tom Ryan added three more to my list: The End of the Affair (1999), Intimacy (2001) and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (2005), his reviews of which had alluded to Brief Encounter parallels. Most recently, Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015), technically an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, boldly announces its affiliation with Lean’s classic. One can’t know to what extent each of these film-makers had Brief Encounter in mind, but the fact that its essential scenario and its moral core still retain their emotional power, despite the shifts in cultural mores, irresistibly suggests the long shadow it casts.

Those titles above all involve a relationship whose outcome foregrounds the conflict of desire and – what? Convention, other obligations, decency and other circumstantial and/or moral pressures that one or both protagonists takes into consideration. The End of the Affair is the second adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel, in which Sarah (Julianne Moore), married to decent but dull civil servant Henry (Stephen Rea), falls passionately in love with a writer, Maurice (Ralph Fiennes). Five years later in 1944, fearing Maurice has been killed during a bomb raid, she pledges to God that she will renounce him if God will let him live. There are some obvious echoes of Brief Encounter – the flashback framework in which Maurice comes to terms with the affair, for example, and, above all, Sarah’s renunciation, though God, not Henry, is the other protagonist here.

The reviewer’s casual reference to Lean’s film suggests that reviewers can take for granted the persistence of the scenario and values of the 1945 film as a recognisable point of reference for their readers. Intimacy, with its scenes of uninhibited nudity and sexuality, may seem a long way from the restrained kisses exchanged by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard (Celia never gets beyond removing her scarf), but there is again the powerful sense of a relationship at odds with the rest of their lives as played out by Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox. Again, it is the woman who walks away finally from the affair, and again she is married to an amiable husband, whom she has been deceiving on a weekly basis and to whom, and to their son, she returns. It is essentially sexual gratification that she is renouncing, but renunciation it certainly is.

It’s hard to imagine a more discreetly affecting love story than Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time. Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), an American woman in early middle age, comes to Cairo to join her husband Mark, who is detained in Gaza on UN work and has sent an old friend, Tareq (Alexander Siddig), to meet and look after her till he arrives. Tareq and Juliette are inevitably but almost imperceptibly drawn together. Cairo Time recalls Brief Encounter in its muted way of suggesting a developing feeling and in the way this has not been sought and isn’t about to be gratified at the drop of a hat – or any other article of clothing. Can you imagine a love story in which they don’t instantly throw caution to the winds, along with the protagonists’ clothes, and leap straight into bed?

Clarkson is the lead again in Learning to Drive, set in New York, in which she plays a writer who has left her marriage and becomes attracted to her Indian driving instructor (Ben Kingsley), whose marriage is also in trouble. This time, though, it is the man who renounces the possibility of a further relationship, motivated by his sense of commitment to his arranged marriage. In this matter, the film recalls Brick Lane: whatever a Westerner may make of such a marriage, to those involved it is a serious bond, whether or not conducive to lasting happiness.

In the romance, Weekend, a casual acquaintance made at a gay bar proves to be something more than just a night of sex. As with Brief Encounter, the relationship between Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) will not lead to long-term fulfilment. After a good deal of talk about their attitudes to their sexuality and their feelings for each other, Russell finally farewells Glen at the station as he leaves to make his way to Oregon. Like Alec, he has no prospect of return. Notice how railway stations recur: a station platform can be a very lonely setting when a train has just left.

Ritesh Batra’s beautiful first feature film, The Lunchbox, kept reminding me of that other great film about a love affair that never quite happens. It opens on a hazy shot of a city (Mumbai to be exact); then a crowded train pulls into a station and the echo of the famous British black-and-white film of 1945 makes itself heard for the first time. There will be other echoes as well, both in detail and in overall structure. Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower, is withdrawn and lonely, as is Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a beautiful young mother whose marriage to the handsome, taciturn Rajeev (Nakul Vaid) is clearly not a happy one. She takes a lot of care preparing her husband’s lunchbox, and when this is wrongly delivered to Saajan the personal drama of the film is set in motion – and proceeds with a quiet subtlety and poignancy. There is even an equivalent of Lean’s gossipy Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg), who ruins the last meeting of Laura and Alec, in the incessant cheeriness of a colleague of Saajan’s who bears down on his wish to be left to himself.

Mention of Dolly Messiter leads me back to Carol. In this adaptation of Highsmith’s novel of a lesbian romance, the two women – Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) – are meeting for the last time in a cafe. Just after Carol has said “I love you” to Therese, the latter’s former boyfriend appears to interrupt their last moments. As Carol stands to leave, she puts her hand on Therese’s shoulder, exactly as Alec made his farewell to Laura, and, as in Brief Encounter, this meeting provides a sort of bookend for the film, repeated as it is at the film’s end. There are many other direct parallels with Lean’s film, and director Haynes has acknowledged in an interview in the Age that the 1945 film was a starting point for his own film. It’s not just this key moment that invokes Brief Encounter; rather, the whole film offers a moving study of emotions that have a hard time expressing themselves, especially in public places. In the Age a week later, another writer casually wrote about Highsmith’s own background and how it informed her novel: “Although the encounter had been so brief, [the vision of] ‘Carol’ continued to haunt her.” There is another echo of that last, interrupted meeting in the 2015 film version of Testament of Youth, when Aunt Belle’s chatter spoils Vera and Roland’s farewell, again in a cafe.

A film that doesn’t deal in narrative parallels with the old classic is Dan Ireland’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, derived from Elizabeth Taylor’s novel. But it is explicitly raised in an exchange between the eponymous Mrs Palfrey (Joan Plowright) and the young writer, Ludo (Rupert Friend), who comes to her aid (Alec-like) when she slips on the pavement outside his flat. The plot involves a deception – she passes Ludo off as her grandson – and at one point he asks her what her favourite film is and she replies, “Brief Encounter. I saw it when I was eighteen and at the end was weeping shamelessly. There was nothing left for us [her and husband-to-be] to do but fall in love.” Later, Ludo goes into a DVD shop to buy the film and meets a young girl, who, in a nice cross-generational touch, says, “It’s one of my favourites.”

Perhaps the most poignant revisiting of Brief Encounter territory is the French film, Mademoiselle Chambon, and the connection was noted by reviewers at the time. The film’s last two episodes would have been enough to stress this: the second-last is set on an empty railway platform, from which Véronique has just boarded the train that will take her away from the town where she has fallen in love with Jean; and the last finds Jean returned home to take his place at the kitchen table with wife Anne-Marie. As in most of the films echoing the great forerunner, someone will have to leave the scene of unsought passion, and nowhere is this more affecting than in Mademoiselle Chambon. And in perhaps no other is music so crucial: ordinary working man Jean is entranced by Véronique’s violin playing, and we recall how potent the Rachmaninoff was in the earlier film.

And perhaps quirkiest echo of all is in episode eight in the fifth season of the TV series, Shameless, the brilliant, anarchic Manchester-set comedy-drama of a family of six kids presided over by shiftless, heavy-drinking dad Frank Gallagher (Mum has left). The synopsis for this episode begins: “On the bus to a restart course, Frank has the briefest of encounters with a beautiful stranger, Rosie. Within days, he finds himself falling in love and turning into a new man, but the stage is set for heartache…”

Episodes and parodies… and a tea room in Norfolk

I’ve been struck by the astounding number of references to the 1945 film in all sorts of places, often in a casual comment that assumes readers will know to what the writer refers. And if you consult IMDb you will find no fewer than ninety-two titles come up when Brief Encounter is typed in. Many of these are TV episodes, some using the title punningly, but the point is that it has never vanished from the collective memory. Such titles, apart from those that simply repeat the original, include Briefcase Encounter (an episode in each of two different series, in 1982 and 1990), Grief Encounter (1999) and Reef Encounter (1996). Now, there’s nothing especially clever about these; what interests me is the sheer persistence of the 1945 title as part of our ongoing consciousness. As I write, a new, strongly cast TV series, called Brief Encounters, is in production for Britain’s ITV.

On the platform: an advertisement for the Brief Encounter Refreshment Room in Norfolk. Brian McFarlane

As recently as 5 November 2015, a mere seventy years later, an Age reviewer remarked of the protagonists of a new British romantic comedy, Man Up, “They meet by chance under the clock at Waterloo Station, which might be a nod in the direction of the war-time classic Brief Encounter.” (In fact, the film was neither set in nor released during the war, but it’s the use of the title that matters here.) An article of my own was titled by the editor “Brief Encounters: British Cinema in Australia” (Island, 1994). There have been wicked parodic sketches by famed American satirists Elaine May and Mike Nichols (1958) and Britain’s Victoria Wood (2007); there is a Brief Encounter Refreshment Room in Wymondham, Norfolk, advertised on the railway platform (as it would be); Julian Clary has written a novel about Noël Coward’s love life (inter alia) entitled Briefs Encountered; and there is even an underwear retailer called Brief Encounters.

There are dozens of other references, quotations and echoes, serious and trivial, that could be adduced, space permitting, to testify to the longevity of a brief encounter that seems to have lodged itself unforgettably in the minds and hearts of so many. •