As much as I’m fine with watching any number of films about any number of subjects, I’ve always disliked films about love affairs. This is, in particular, those breed of films that involves two previously romantically involved people, whether through marriage or a steady relationship, falling for each other. Perhaps it simply stems from my own views that it’s a terribly selfish and horrible thing to do to other people and to yourself.
Therefore, listening to Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) recount her love affair with Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), I found no reason to be drawn into their plight, no empathy for the players involved and no desire to see the two succeed in making their relationship work. If anything, I couldn’t wait until they broke up.
What compounded my frustration was the poorly used voice over narration of the Laura character. The heavy reliance on purple prose narration shows that Brief Encounter is not a film, but an adaption of, in this case, a play. As she goes on in her head about how the affair played out, all I could think is how much nicer this story might be on a page instead of on a movie screen and I’m skeptical it worked as a play.
While Laura expounds upon how grating it was to endure the presence of a particularly high-pitched and talkative acquaintance, I instantly knew how she felt because I wanted her to shut up. Let the visuals do the talking, let the actors express the emotions. I don’t need Laura’s voice telling me what I can already see etched on Celia Johnson’s face.
What I can’t see is what these two find in each other. Both characters lack personality, defining characteristics or viewpoints that give them common ground or a point of conflict or tension. They simply are empty vessels for which the audience to dump themselves into, generally nice people in the same way most people generally want to be likable.
I found myself far more interested in the side characters who bumbled about in the train station. There the film was enlivened with far more wit, playfulness and plausibility than I could see in the core relationship of the film. All it took was one scene and I was invested in the two characters who bantered back and forth in the train station, if only the core relationship could do half as much with the time allotted to it as that one scene, I might be intrigued.
It’s a shame, too, because the film certainly doesn’t suffer in the direction and cinematography department. There are some fantastic sequences, especially as the film goes on, taking a noir look that culminates in a haunting scene that would be astounding if I actually had even an ounce of empathy for the characters involved.
Brief Encounter is probably the Slumdog Millionaire of its time, the kind of love story that for some reasons people swoon over even though the players involved have no personality. I’ll take the playful, yet mature (500) Days of Summer and Little Children over this love affair. All I could help thinking as the credits rolled is that the encounter was not nearly brief enough.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing