Brief Encounter review – A beautiful film written with only the most perfect words from the English language

Poster of the 1945 film Brief Encounter.Brief Encounter (1945)

Director: David Lean
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard

Protagonists Laura Jesson and Dr Alec Harvey repeatedly meet by chance and, although married to other people, embark on a short affair that neither one of them will ever forget.

  • Winner of the Grand Prize of the Festival at the Cannes Film Festival (1946)
  • Nominated for three Academy Awards (1947): Best Actress in a Leading Role (Celia Imrie), Best Director and Best Writing – Screenplay

As soon as I finished watching Brief Encounter I sat and thought about the film, running through its plot and the moments that touched me with my boyfriend, who had not watched it with me.

Only now – hours later as I write this review – have I looked it up on IMDb and Wikipedia to find out more about the cast, crew and production. Instead of rushing to find out more about it, I wanted to sit with my thoughts and really think about what I’d watched.

“I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people”

There are such eloquent turns of phrase throughout the film that I wrote several down as I was watching it. “I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people” must be one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever heard.

Spoken by Laura, to think of love as something violent demonstrates the turmoil she was experiencing after falling in love with a man who wasn’t her husband, knowing that her feelings weren’t frivolous or vulgar but on a much deeper level.

To a modern audience – used to myriad relationships and personalities acted out on screen – the theme of adultery is nothing new, but to the contemporary audience Brief Encounter was risqué and indeed the film was banned by certain censorship boards on the grounds that it portrayed an adulterer in a sympathetic light.

Still from the film Brief Encounter showing Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.

“I got to the station 15 minutes before the last train to Ketchworth and then I realised that I had been wandering about for over three hours but it didn’t seem to be anytime at all”

The film is bookended with the same scene: Laura and Alec sitting in the refreshment room at Milford Junction. To start with Johnson and Howard’s performances seem emotionless – perhaps a little wooden – but once you understand what has passed between their characters you appreciate how much emotion is being portrayed.

Throughout the film the cast deliver exceptional performances. I caught myself smiling at Laura and Alec’s early encounters, and the playful banter between Albert Godby, Milford Junction’s ticket collector, and Mrs Bagot, the refreshment room owner, is very enjoyable. “Oh you look wonderful when you’re angry, just like an avenging angel,” said Albert to Mrs Bagot on one particular occasion.

While it is without a doubt Laura’s film, a mention must be given to her husband, Fred, who delivers an immortal line – “Thanks for coming back to me” – providing the second heartbreak of the film. Laura had fallen so passionately for Alec, but a thought must be given for Fred – had he noticed a change in Laura’s behaviour, did he realise that her mind and heart had been elsewhere?

Brief Encounter is beautiful, moving, written with only the most perfect words from the English language, and the timeless themes of love, joy, guilt, and heartbreak make Lean’s masterpiece continually adored by audiences decades after its release.

★★★★★

5 thoughts on “Brief Encounter review – A beautiful film written with only the most perfect words from the English language

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  1. Beautiful review, Claire!! I actually saw this 2 years ago, when the director friend of mine (who directed my first short film) gave me the dvd. The film we worked on was a romantic drama that I had written, and he kept telling me I should watch this film and later on he ended up giving me the dvd as a gift.

    “… to think of love as something violent demonstrates the turmoil she was experiencing after falling in love with a man who wasn’t her husband…” Oh my! I think the story has such a timeless elegance and while modern audiences think of romance + sex so frivolously these days, I appreciate films that touch upon love on a deeper level and not take infidelity lightly. I’m glad you mentioned Fred… his line “Thanks for coming back to me” had me in tears!

    I remember being quite transfixed by this film after watching it, I wish I had written a review then but I think I will do that early next year, so thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Thank you, Ruth! I completely agree – I think it has a timeless elegance too. I’m completely in love with the way they speak to each other 🙂
      I look forward to reading your review on it next year!

  2. I just searched for this review after I read that it made your Five Films Forever Blogathon having only recently seen it for the first time. I love this film, it’s always been one of my favourite David Lean movies (Doctor Zhivago is my favourite). Known for his big sprawling epics, like Zhivago, its always great when somebody comes across his earlier films like this, or Blithe Spirit.

    If you haven’t already seen them, a couple of recommendations: Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. The original idea was inspired by Brief Encounter. And, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, you will see why when you watch it!

    1. Thanks for checking out my review, Andy. Interesting you mention Doctor Zhivago – I know it is quite the epic. I’ve only seen that TV adaptation starring Keira Knightley so must check out Lean’s version at some point.

      Ah, several people I know rate The Apartment. I haven’t heard of In the Mood for Love before. I’ll have to check them both out!

      1. I saw Doctor Zhivago at Cineworld about five years ago as part of a BFI season. It is spectacular on the big screen. Worth watching on TV.

        Yes, whenever it comes up the Apartment gets a lot of love, its one of Ryan’s (The Matinee) all time favourites.

        In the Mood for love is just spectacular.

        Look forward to hearing your thoughts if you get to see any of them.

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