Breakouts and Outbreaks: David Lean with ‘Brief Encounter’

For the first several minutes of Brief Encounter we see only those who will serve as secondary characters. The two leads (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) linger on-screen in the background. This establishes them as exactly who they are: average people. Neither one is particularly special. They are part of suburban life. But they discover something magical just beyond the confines of their society when they fall in love. Alas, as the story progresses we learn that both Laura and Alec are married. But their love for each other is the love that really matters. The perspective of an average person going against their society’s expectations is a pivotal theme in David Lean’s work.

The first three films of David Lean were In Which We Serve, Blithe Spirit, and This Happy Breed. They were studio films pushed through the running success of writer Noel Coward. Lean was a tool for the success of mediocre works. While Brief Encounter is also a Noel Coward film, this was the first one that he selected for himself and took control. It was the beginning of David Lean’s auteurism.

Despite the fact that Lean is famous for his sweeping epics that began in 1957 with The Bridge on the River Kwai, he had humble beginnings for his career. He made his first nine films in between 1942 and 1952, five years before Kwai; so labelling him a director of epics is disproportionate and inaccurate. It is also belittling to a director with considerable range. That said, his particular auteuristic qualities remain consistent after his fourth feature, Brief Encounter, which also serves as his first masterpeice and first box-office hit. It is a true artistic and populist breakout that shares more with his later features than may meet the eye.

The afforementioned focus on a nobody becoming a somebody is an intrinsic theme in Lean’s work as T. E. Lawrence is just an average soldier, Zhivago is an average orphan, the soldiers of Kwai are merely enlisted men, and the Dickens adaptations speak for themselves. While the same could be said of his first three films (particularly In Which We Serve), the characters serving as populist thematically began with Brief Encounter.

Outside of merely focusing on populist principals, Brief Encounter shares with his other films the use of a framing device, a first-person narrative, a tight-focus on a single individual (Laura in this case), the notion of an affair as a key plot point, and the general artistic style. With Lean’s first three films, he failed to fully escape the confines of the plays that they are based. With Encounter he mastered subjective staging that allows for the focus to shift in ways that a stage could not allow. For example, there is an early scene in which Laura leaves the coffee shop at the train station while the camera is following another character. The concept of mise-en-scene is everything that is onscreen. But equally important is what is deliberately not on screen. This is something that the stage cannot do but cinema can.

As an extension of Lean’s focus on “average” protaginists, Lean’s films often are based on morally ambiguous predicaments. As previously stated, affairs appear in several of his films (most notably Brief Encounter and Doctor Zhivago), and they appear as presenting one specific question: Is it more important to remain loyal or be true to honest emotion? Oustide of romantic affairs, Lean questions national loyalty in Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. T. E. Lawrence struggles with the fact that he is a british serving officer who sympathizes with the Arab plight. Dr. Zhivago is opposed to the upheaval of his country and struggles to serve his nation in indifference. The soldiers of Kwai become obsessed with their creation to the point of insanity. But is that more important the nation they are supposedly serving? Lean likes to toy with his viewers expectations; what is often perceived as morally right can prove to be anything but. What is important in life?

David Lean is a director who can be quoted as having said, “I think people remember pictures not dialogue. That’s why I like pictures.” His films are thematic and focused on overt story archs. They are deeply fleshed out of classic melodrama and emroidered with overdramatic performances and music. But Brief Encounter  is the rare film that captures quirky characters and nuanced emotional moments on top of Lean’s auteuristic style. Modest, endearing, and beautiful; this is my favorite David Lean film.

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