Featured Artwork: ‘Brief Encounter’ by Stephen Pannell
In David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, a middle-aged housewife Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) meets the married doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) by chance at an English train station. With a friendly conversation over tea, a speck of coal caught under the eye, and a series of arranged meetings at the cinema, a platonic relationship gradually develops. Eventually, however, during a few clandestine meetings, first on a trip to the countryside and then during a champagne lunch, the two realize they are in love with each other and become agonized over their feelings. After a thwarted attempt at a private rendezvous, because of their high self-expectations and the responsibilities they feel towards their spouses and children, they agree that there can’t be a future for them and they talk of ending the affair. This must be their last meeting, but Howard is adamant they meet one last time. Laura’s eyes glaze over Howard’s shoulder, and I wonder what she could possibly be thinking at that moment.
The film is set in a long flashback as Laura narrates to the audience her love affair as her supportive yet ultimately suburban husband sits by her chair in the parlor, Laura’s eyes set off in a daydream. There are many things to swoon over in the film — clouds of smoke glide through the film, from cigarettes, breath in cold air. The exhaust of the trains rushes in and out of the station, over and over. A sweeping rendition of Rachmonioff’s second piano concerto swells over and under the currents of the film, meandering through tunnels of dialogue and shining in certain key moments. And yet, there’s just one scene in Brief Encounter that I suspect will stay with me, more so than any other cinematic moment.
The shot of Laura staring out a train window after Laura and Alec confess their love for each other, gazing at her reflection just to see the look of barely contained glee and ecstasy on her face as the window starts to project her wildest romantic fantasies, is one of the most thrilling moments I’ve ever seen. Celia Johnson has a type of subtle beauty that doesn’t dazzle, but rather simmers until a boiling point and tremors in great waves over. Her huge eyes are infinitely expressive, and they seem so innocent until the moment when Laura and Alec say out loud that they are in love. She perfectly conveys a woman seized by emotion but oh so fearfully, guilty, regretfully, reluctantly. The scene where we see her gaze into the reflection of the train, the camera slowly bumping up and downwards captures a perfect visual élan, a shot that does not move yet contains a level of movement wildly outsized to its composition, all without ever losing the crucial image of a woman facing up to her warring instincts of propriety and longing and briefly, wholly indulging in the latter.
Brief Encounter has a gorgeous and gorging agony to it; a dark and carbonated beverage that can swell to full and leave an emptiness. It’s also truthful, in the way few films are, about a tingling alertness, the addictive quality in the reflection of Laura’s face on the train that seems to be life, but is only death with an excellently packaged mortician. “This can’t last,” Laura narrates. “Nothing lasts, really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.”