In regard to the classics, it always intrigues me about the forging of legacy and what gets held in regards of the pantheon of great films. Some criteria as to what films get repeatedly praised have continued relevance, excellent filmmaking, and possibly represent the era which they were created. However, the game isn’t always a fair one. What happens when you have films that are so similar in premise and execution…but one is remembered fondly as a good film, and the other is remembered as one of the best films of all time.
Let’s be honest, if I ask you “what’s the 1940’s noir style romance about two lovers who meet at the central location and are tragically left in unsurmountable circumstances to not end up together” most people are going to think of Casablanca. A British Magazine composed a list compiled by 100 film industry experts and would you look at what tops what I consider a pretty darn good list.
Yet your average film watching has probably long forgotten this film. Not even your Oscar buff will be too knowledgeable as it lost out due to The Best Years of Our Lives running away with mostly everything (A Wonderful Life also went home empty that year, take it as you will). So now with Fresh eyes, do I consider it the downplayed masterpiece or a relic collecting dust and drifting further from the modern zeitgeist.
I thoroughly enjoy the overall look of Brief Encounter. While I personally don’t have much fan-fare for the works of David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago) the man has an extraordinary grasp on scope. While not as grandiose as some of his aforementioned works Brief Encounter seems to contrarily feel tight and claustrophobic at times. Boxed into a boxcar or sitting within tight quarters with Laura’s husband Fred. However, it also seems to work to produce some intimacy as Laura and Dr. Harvey share a booth at a music club or a tiny duck boat. The most prominent location is the train station and it actively feels both lively and empty. With the constant approach of trains this avoids the artificial staging of the 40’s soundstage. However, the glaring absent of extras is pardoned by how the isolation greatly fits the characters disposition. Laura lives in a world that feels lonely until she’s sweeps off her feet by someone who feels like he’s the only one in the world.
While modern times have said to ice out the use of voice over, Brief Encounter uses it nearly to perfection. It stood to be possibly my favorite use of voice-over, until I watched I’m Thinking of Ending Things in the same week making it a toss-up. This voice over is intimate and demonstrates the dilemma harping on our main protagonist. It doesn’t necessarily rob the audience of points that would serve as interpretational “show” moments. It gives great context into the characters thoughts and is cleverly edited into strong moments of reflection.
Another great element is the rich writing. What separates brief Encounters from Casablanca is their overall outlook and attitude. Casablanca despite being a tragic romance, still holds pretty optimistic. “We’ll always have Paris”, nothing can take away the bliss we once had. Brief Encounter is far more bitter:
“This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.”– Laura Jesson
Brief Encounter is a dower take on the cruelty of romance and the hallow feeling of a life unfulfilling. It’s interesting to see Casablanca sort of from the opposite female perspective. It adds the layer of offering the context of Laura’s domestic life and unhappy marriage with Fred.
It harbors on the nightmare of settling and the fear of the one that got away. The film never antagonizes Fred, at least in a traditional sense. Laura’s husband isn’t a terrible person, but he is incredibly underwhelming. His sin isn’t being cruel or possessive in fact it’s the opposite. Inattentiveness, and a blissful ignorance to Laura’s internal rut that is what leaves a sour impression onto Fred. Just in the same position as Laura do we see the issue less with the person but the idea of being with him.
In most of his scenes he discusses the crossword and seems more entranced with that than any news of Laura’s whereabouts. Fred isn’t envious or filled with rage, instead he seems genuinely pleased that Laura has made a friend. That’s when the drama becomes less about individuals, it’s not Fred, Laura wishes to depart from it’s settling down. The reality of being a mother and a housewife rather than this fantasy of finding love and still adventuring out of routine.
This is what gives Brief Encounter a unique experience from Casablanca. Casablanca the iconography makes it the story of them. Casablanca is about Rick Blaine, and Ilsa Lund, and the nightclub and how they’ll always have Paris. Brief Encounter is an open story and one that allows you to find yourself on a vacant train station. Laura is almost an audience stand-in to a simple premise, the often-romanticized chance encounter. The idea that someone can come along and make your life more exciting, fill a hole that left you incomplete, and reignite the extinguished flame inside yourself.
Is it selfish to dream of more? Is it foolish to be contempt with a bleak averageness of the mundane life you lead? Brief Encounter seems to tackle this issue with a moderate position never fully romanticizing the forlorn lovers and absolving them from the consequences or the futility of their idyllic relationship. This is the charm of Brief Encounter, it’s uncomplicated on the surface. But that’s the guise of any relationship, upkeep the appearance, indulge in the act. Repress any anxiety of falsehood to it and be comfortable in the shared existence. Or maybe there truly is a genuine soul mate who can uplift your spirits and worth the risk of attaching oneself to.
This is all up to you to decide, but the window of opportunity is wistfully brief.