Monday, March 26, 2012

When Sorrow is Beautiful

This time, our group decided to jump across the pond for what is perhaps the perfect tearjerker: Brief Encounter (1945).  Two of us had recently seen the Broadway retelling of the story, and being fans of the film, were not pleased with the results.  We found the levity in the play too distracting in this story of beautiful sorrow.  The film, directed by David Lean, is a magnificent rendering of a very simple story line - two married strangers meet casually on the train platform of a small English town.  The following week, they run into one another again; a friendship is formed, followed quickly by love.  Of course, their love is doomed - both have spouses and children.  Neither can bear to hurt their families. Thus, they must separate, never to see one another again.

Drawn out as just a few lines of plot, this film sounds trite. It is not.  Aided by the subtle direction of David Lean, a score that deftly uses Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 as subtext, and superb acting by Celia Johnson as Laura Jesson and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, this is a movie (to quote TCM) that is an Essential.  The story is told from Laura's point of view - she is our narrator - and so we see her reactions to the whirlpool into which has life has fallen.  The original story (a play called Still Life) only has 4 characters - Laura and Alec, and the "comic" relief of the train station couple, Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey). In fact, the whole play takes place in the refreshment room of the train station.  Lean opens up the action, and allows us to meet Laura's husband and children, making even more poignant the decision facing Laura.
The DVD version of Brief Encounter has some interesting commentary on it.  I have to admit that one scene (in which we see Alec and his friend Stephen argue over Alec's failed attempt to consummate his affair with Laura), which the commentator said did not work - since it was not something that Laura could have seen (she has already run from the room), did, in fact, work for me.  I saw this conversation as LAURA'S imagining of what actually occurred.  It seems unlikely, to this observer, that men would have this discussion.  More, it was the final realization, by Laura, that her relationship with Alex has become tawdry, and must end.

If you've never seen Brief Encounter, give yourself the pleasure of a visit to post World War II England, and visit with Laura and Alec.  Here is the trailer; you can hear some of the music, as well as get a taste of the film itself: