Brief Encounter David Lean (UK 1945) Script: Noel Coward: Celia Johnson; Trevor Howard
Viewed: Riverside Studio London; 12 April 10; Ticket:: £7.50 (double bill with Letter from an Unknown Woman)
Adrin Neatrour writes retrocrit: Love in a mechanistic country
In filming Brief Encounter, David Lean (DL) took Noel Coward’s play Still Life, and re-cast it as a dream, a dream subjectively experienced as one of those bitter fairy tales. Dl worked his material so as to make the idea of a hallucinatory ‘world’ the centre of the film. In concept and design Brief Encounter (BE) is imagined as a world, or rather worlds. Brief Encounter is designed as a vehicle for a female voice and following Laura’s the voice (Celia Johnson) we track her migration through the different states of mind triggered by the film’s zoning. Lean’s decision to realise BE through the creation of worlds gives Coward’s moralistic fable of Middle Class mores a nightmarish emotional depth that endows the original material with a mythic quality.
BE is fashioned around the three distinct loci as witnessed through ‘Laura’s voice’: the trapped, represented by Laura’s family home; the station which is the transitional dream zone; and the town/country locations, hallucinatory spaces, Arcadia, where Laura and Alec are together, and like spirits released from Hades, allowed a short respite from their doom.
The heart of the film is the railway station. A conceptual area realised in the creation of a number of different discrete spaces. The station works as a setting that mediates a dream world. A fairy tale which creates intensifies and transforms the impossible notion of two comfortably married people falling desperately in love. The sets, the atmospheric effects the composition and camera movement are all exploited creatively to extend the viewers’ perception from the surface of the film, the dialogue and voice over, through to the psychic forces underlying the action: primal instinct and repressed desire.
The opening shot comprises a slow track along the counter of the tea room to find figures of Laura and Alec sitting together at a table. The gliding camera immediately introduces a dream quality into the film and comprises a sequence that will be repeated at the end of the film. The tea room is a purgatorial space, a zone where the lost and damned must wait to discover their fate; an antechamber to the unspeakable that recurs in dream and nightmare. It is where Laura meets Alec for the first time as he restores her sight to her by removing the mote from her eye. Outside the tea room lies the subterranean passage to Arcadia through which you must pass to enjoy the illusion of freedom; and the terrifying mechanics of the platforms where the business of the station occurs mired in hissing steam and smoke: a diabolic region of flesh eating monsters The station functions like some terrible in-between place, a diabolic machine that processes peoples lives and determines their fate. Woe to the soul trapped here.
Laura’s nightmare does not only trap her in space. She is also trapped in the mechanics of time: a tyranny
of clockwork timetables and rigid temporal matrices. In dreams, time is never an ally; it is always a fiendish element. In dream there is never enough time and it is always too late to avoid fate. In BE time is an enforcement agency cut into the grain of the film. DL resolves the structure of film about the railway system: the iron hand of its clock formatting the schedules and timetables that drive everyday life. Centred on the station Wilford Junction, Laura and Alec are depicted filmically by DL as pawns in a mechanised system of dispatch delivery and retrieval. They have no will of their own but are products of a linear temporal programme, a steam driven conveyor belt system which summons and calls them at set and specified times; there are serious implied penalties for non compliance. The couple’s fear throughout the film is centred on ‘missing the train’: you have to catch the train, it will save you. The railway timetable as an apparatus of course extends through life itself. Laura and Alec are tightly controlled by schedule. She can only come to town on Thursdays; he can only work in town on Thursdays. They both live by inflexible temporal imperatives, deeply internalised and unquestionable.
BE works as film because of DL’s interlayering of a mechanistic temporal structure over a filmic creation of worlds. The effect is make a fairytale out of Laura’s subjectivity. The form of BE has the necessary elements: time, as an enforcer is often a critical feature of the fairy tale (Cinderella for instance). And fairy tales are also set in particular worlds or series of worlds: the forest the palace the cottage ( the Twelve Swans). Lean’s filmic vision led him not to centre BE about the somewhat everyday (but very well written) melodrama of an unrequited love affair, but to resolve the story about the setting and timetables of the railway system. Instead of focusing attention on the social and personal moral dilemma of Laura and Alec, he uses film to transform the material into a fairytale set in the dark restless world of the of the railway station where yearning spirits live in fear and trembling of the span of mortal days. BE as an updated and rejigged Little Mermaid.