December 16, 2017
Brief Encounter (1945)
Grade: 72/100

Director: David Lean
Stars: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Cyril Raymond

What it's about. Introverted slender brunette Celia Johnson is a thirty-something married to kindly but soporific Cyril Raymond. They have two mischievous pre-adolescent children, Richard Thomas and Henrietta Vincent. Johnson loves her family, but this does not keep her from falling for Trevor Howard, a dashing doctor who recently meets her for tea, lunch, and/or a movie every Thursday.

Inevitably, Johnson suggests that the two abandon their respective families for each other. The very notion is shocking, of course, but we are talking about True Love here, which can only come once in a lifetime, and then only while the cameras are rolling.

How others will see it. The anticipation, joy, anxiety, and indecision of the Noel Coward play adaptation enthralled British viewers in 1945. Across the Atlantic in America, the film failed to sell as many tickets, but it did garner three Oscar nods in the Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay categories.

Today, Brief Encounter has nearly 30K user votes at, a healthy number for a mono black and white movie from 1945. The user ratings are lofty, and rise from 8.0 among men under age 45 to 8.6 among women over 45. The user reviews are gushing with praise for the screenplay, direction, and performances.

How I felt about it. Watching Brief Encounter makes me want to open a hat factory. It seems that every woman in England wears a hat, and you know that she has at least a dozen more in her closet. Then you realize that the movie came out 72 years ago, and nobody wears a hat anymore except for the Pope.
Brief Encounter presents a moral dilemma for the postwar British upper middle-class woman. Is it right to pursue the love of your life, even if you are happily married with two children? The predictable answer is No, not even if the ardent pursuer is Trevor Howard.

But wouldn't it be romantic? There's no denying that, and certainly it is harmless to fantasize about some dashing dream man swooping in to whisper sweet nothings and declare his undying passion. That is where Brief Encounter comes in.

Lovely Celia Johnson ultimately gets nowhere with Trevor Howard, forming a fortress around home plate and obligating Howard to take that lousy job in South Africa. Her romance is contrasted with that of middle-aged lower middle-class workers Fred (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle (Joyce Carey). They don't get anywhere either, but there remains hope that tomorrow may bring better behavior and attitudes. All Celia Johnson is left with is her dull husband and bratty kids, but then again, that is what she signed up for.

We are supposed to feel sympathy for the illicit lovers, while chuckling with amusement at the performances of Carey and Holloway. Does the working class exist to provide comedy for the upper class? Perhaps later British dramas written by Alan Sillitoe are more realistic.

Watching this movie, I kept hearing Eric Carmen's "All By Myself", which my clock radio played all too often back in 1975. It turns out that both the song and the movie have something in common: Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto Number Two. Hopefully, I will be able to get it out of my head without its replacement by something equally depressing.

As for Brief Encounter, it is a very good movie, despite its false All or Nothing dilemma. It seems that a third solution, a compromise where Johnson and Howard meet every Thursday just for tea, works out fine for everyone. The sacred families are saved, the two would-be lovers can make covert google eyes at each other, and tea room workers Myrtle and Beryl can enjoy generous tips. But such an ending would not be dramatic enough for David Lean, or bring tears to the eyes of British housewives.