From: Andrew Stewart MacKay
Date: 06 October 2005
There are two things that everybody remembers about Brief Encounter; the shrill of Celia Johnson’s overcooked accent and Rachmaninov’s oppressive second piano concerto. The railway setting lends the film a transitory, almost fatalistic, atmosphere and at the time of release the film cleverly preyed upon contemporary social anxieties about social movement, the role of women, the family and thereby the very social fabric of Britain. Sixty years ago, what had we been fighting for? Well, many were fighting for a vision of Middle England represented in Brief Encounter, a place of hierarchy, cohesion and self restraint.
The central characters in Brief Encounter are definitively of the same class but the film makes it implicitly certain that they would never have meet had it not been for their mutual use of modern transportation.
Technological innovation was generally accepted as the great benefit to civilisation indeed often the marker, yet here it is used as a catalyst for the breakdown of civilisation. Anyone 60 years ago would have been only too aware of the destructive potential of modern technology. Technology has brought together two ordinarily “respectable” people and held them open to the temptations of an affair that, had they remained in their respective communities, would ordinarily never have happened – or so is the other great implicit in the film. The only thing that in the end saves the lovers’ is their residual respect for convention.
The housewife, Laura’s innocent day out to town every Thursday, to shop, have lunch, see a film, and generally enjoy herself is invaded by Alec’s presence. Clearly letting ones wife enjoy herself, alone, in town, far from home (and its constraints), will inevitably lead to danger and instability. It is only social forces that can save women from themselves; the chains are locked for a reason. Indeed, Beryl, the station tea lady, who for reasons of her class has looser constraints upon her sexual integrity, finds herself in flirtatious danger, open to abuse, saved only by a sympathetic other man, precisely because she has no middle class social constraints to protect her. Laura silently acknowledges this doubled edged sword, whist waiting for Alec and sipping her tea.
Laura recognises early on in the film, there is a danger in the unspoken and her affair with Alec can only ever be unspoken. (The producer was Noel Coward and the film is loosely based upon his play Still Life (1935). His experiences as a gay man in the 1940’s must surely have had an impact upon the film’s subtext). As a wife and mother, any hint of infidelity would disgrace her for years. Alec is a doctor and the analogies with disease are suggestive. The ancient idea that love is a disease is invoked, but it veils a deeper layer which points to a feeling that sex could be addictive, socially subversive and, still, an even deeper layer where it might become pathological. Yet all is only alluded to. We don’t glimpse anything more intimate than a kiss; sex is only hinted at.
The burden of Civilisation is placed on Laura’s shoulders. She is perhaps only dimly aware of her central importance in Society. She, who must hold back and reinforce the social parameters. It is her burden, her sexuality, that terrifies the men around her and permeates the film’s interior logic. The pain and confusion quickly become ever clearer in her body language, the dramatic Rachmaninov score bashing tirelessly on in the background, yet Laura must remain steadfast.
The social fabric ultimately smothers her desire. She realises just how difficult (and selfish?) it would be to continue with the affair. Indeed, it’s the morally upstanding position that ultimately we the audience are expected to understand. The film would have been unacceptable had Laura not “seen sense” and had not Alec taken a job in South Africa. The film could only have been made with the ending taken for granted. Gazing at the calm and solid face of her husband Bill, sitting by the fire doing the crossword, Laura feels a pang for her lover she knows she can never see again. Bill might appear stuffy and repressed to us now but in 1945 he was the sensible, respectable choice. (Out of interest, does sensible and respectable mean anything today?) What is important to the films logic is that we accept the last scene, sitting calmly by the fire, as the Truth of Reality.
(But what if the lovers had run off together? The internal logic of the narrative suggests that, if universalised, society would collapse and the war would have been lost. Alec’s going to South Africa is a plot device, one that conveniently halts any practical continuation to the affair. Laura perhaps has been given a lucky escape. We breathe a sigh of relief on her behalf. Laura remains a symbol of (oppressed) Romance because we don’t have the chance to see her desire wane, get bored, be nasty, regret eloping with Alec, miss her son, the affair collapse and it all get messy.)
Laura takes us in to her own world and relates a secret story we must keep to ourselves. We are trusted, valued and respected, in the same way as the solid, patriarchal Bill she realises she must love. On seeing this film wartime audiences will have used her, in the same way her husband does. Her life is setup as an example for him and them. The most telling thing about Bill is that it never even enters his head that she might have feelings for another man. Never has a cuckolded husband appeared so blasé. At first, his innocence might be endearing but it should not be. It rests upon a twisted logic. He has completely de-sexed his wife and as a consequence her infidelity would seem impossible, unthinkable. The de-sexed housewife is no threat to the stable, conventional unit of capitalist society. And 60 years ago, the stable units of Family, Parliament and Country were precisely what we were fighting for. Showing this particular film, in this particular week, reflects a (no doubt ironic) affection for this piece of wartime propaganda.
We value the past and we respect it but we can’t identify with it. Laura is caught in aspic, peered at through thick glass, a specimen from a time long gone. Nowadays Society exerts different pressures upon individuals. Duty has all but disappeared, other than a duty to one’s self. The barometer of the social-climate has swung the other way but perhaps we might learn something of Laura’s utilitarian approach to self restraint.. The film might appear Conservative (and indeed did to wartime audiences) but at its heart lies a sympathetic attempt to convey the desperate pain of lovers who cannot be together, a conveyance understood by so many during a war, where one had no choice but snatch at happiness before it could fully mature.
As the credits rolled, wartime audiences might have been teary and a little disappointed for Laura and Alec, but perhaps it was all for the best. A shared set of values is the basis of a cohesive society, right? After all, what had they fought for sixty years ago?