The Impossible Love of David Lean’s Brief Encounter
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
Given that David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) is about an affair, the film opens with something of a red herring: in a café, a railroad worker and a waitress flirt, testing the limits of sexual attraction in a time (World War II) and place (England) where unwritten codes of conduct reigned. When this would-be amourous man mentions a date, however, the focus of his flirtations balks—she knows he has crossed a line. Lean, at this point, shifts his camera’s focus to a different couple in the background. Unlike the first pair, they aren’t overt in their attractions: Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) sit wordlessly at a table, staring into each other’s eyes with an air of melancholy, a yearning. Both in their late 30s, they could easily be mistaken for a married couple—and they are married, just not to each other.
What makes Brief Encounter a radical breach of the mores of its era is that it never condemns the lovers—the guilt that absorbs them is entirely their own. The two are trapped by their politeness and the fear that someone may suspect they are more than mere friends. Before Alec leaves, all he can do is gently squeeze Laura’s shoulder goodbye. This is as far as their relationship will ever go—a light touch, but a heavy sin. In Ireland, Brief Encounter was banned for “promoting” adultery, in spite of the fact that Laura and Alec’s relationship is never consummated.
Grace has a double meaning, evoking both elegance and favour by God. According to the Bible, the spiritual sin of adultery does not require the act of adultery, but resides in the heart. Adhering to the rules of polite society and chaste covenants is especially limiting for women, and creates conditions for their passive engagement with the world. Yet Brief Encounters’ structure breaks from these restrictive conventions, bringing us deep into Laura’s subjectivity, with a series of flashbacks and, most importantly, through voice-over. These cinematic tools give us a full psychological portrait of a female character (a rarity), and rather than presenting the world as it is, we see the world as Laura understands it. Her outer calm masks an almost screaming inner voice, and Brief Encounter highlights this dissonance.
Sitting in the movie theatre early on in their acquaintance, Laura and Alec watch a silent film from the 1920s called Flames of Passion. Alec teases that Laura should feel guilty, “But what do we have to feel guilty about?” she asks with a laugh. So far everything is innocent; so far she has no reason to feel anything but pleasure. The first hint that there might be something more to the relationship is Laura’s perceptibly growing guilt as she begins to feel the need to lie. After spending the day with Alec, she returns home to find out her son had been hit by a car—Laura can’t help feeling this is a punishment for her having flirted with the idea of infidelity. The innocent friendship has already been twisted by her desire, and the initial pleasure from the high of a new love fades into a constant, abiding anxiety.
It’s not that Laura is unhappy with her husband—far from it—she is still in love with him, but simply desires something more. Constrained by the idea that she was being sinful, she was never able to explore her desire with Alec. Here, the voice-overs of Laura’s thoughts are pivotal in revealing that the crime she and Alec commit against God is in their wanting as much as in their actions.
The fact that Laura’s internal monologue is addressed to her husband Fred is essential to understanding her reasoning. Crucially, what draws Laura back to normal life is fear. In a voice-over, Laura talks about nearly giving in to her desire:
I meant to do it, Fred. I really meant to do it. I stood there trembling right on the edge, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t brave enough. I’d like to say it was the thought of you and the children that prevented me, but it wasn’t. I had no thoughts at all, only an overwhelming desire not to feel anything ever again, not to be unhappy anymore.
Rather than feeling guilty about committing a sin, Laura feels guilty for not being “brave enough” to give in to her desire. There is something both terribly honest and prescient about this realization, which would be echoed in the films and novels that inundated the feminist movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
The closest example of a work of art from this era broaching the topic of adultery with the same frank honesty as Brief Encounter is the 1945 novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, based on the real-life affair between its author Elizabeth Smart and the poet George Baker. Written in poetic prose, the novel details Smart’s internal conflict about being the “other woman” in a passionate sexual affair. In addition to experiencing the pain of yearning and the suffering of being engaged in an impossible love, Smart suffers socially as well. Her affair is a black mark on her life and her reputation, one that seems insurmountable to the point of causing Smart to contemplate suicide. One can easily see Laura in the place of Smart—suffering wrought from pleasure.
Brief Encounter is unlike any other films of this era in its treatment of love and adultery. The sympathetic portrayal of Laura and Alec repositions the central conflict of the film from an issue of fidelity to one of monogamy. The two characters remain “unpunished” for their sins, violating the tenets of the American Motion Picture Production Code (which, as an English film, Brief Encounter was not officially subject to). Casablanca (1942) represents another exceptional portrayal of unpunished adultery, wherein characters Ilsa and Rick rekindle a past love affair. However, Casablanca goes above and beyond to emphasize that any occurrences of adultery are accidental: flashbacks show Ilsa convinced that her husband is dead, and the instant she realizes he is alive she drops Rick. When the two are reunited in Casablanca, the spark is still there, but rather than succumbing to temptation they realize what they want is inconsequential compared to the problems facing a world at war, and they part. Casablanca carefully sides against adultery, whereas Brief Encounter is far more ambiguous, offering both empathy to the characters’ plight and no tragic consequences.
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