Brief Encounter Review

Noel Megahey takes a look at ITV’s recent Blu-ray release of a restored print of David Lean’s romantic classic to see what HD can do for a film over 60 years old.

There is no doubt that Brief Encounter is very much tied to a specific time and place, a post-war England with particular attitudes that are almost unrecognisable from characteristics you’d expect to find in a situation today where two people become involved in an extra-marital affair. Even the locations where their chaste furtive encounters take place seem strange and part of another era. Yet beneath all the trappings of the period and the mannerisms, it’s the human qualities at the heart of Brief Encounter that remain timeless, and it’s David Lean’s ability to bring these qualities out of Noel Coward’s drama and make them come alive on the screen that ensures the film’s greatness.

As in most cases of a classic film, the basic premise is simplicity itself, while underneath the surface there is much more going on, and even within that description there’s something particularly English about those characteristics that fits perfectly with the nature of Brief Encounter. Even in this respect, the film’s story is best described by the lead actress Celia Johnson herself, in a letter to her husband at the time – “It’s about a woman, married and with two children who meets by chance a man in a railway waiting room and they fall in love and it’s all no good.”. It’s these same attitudes, the same tone and the same clipped, polite manner of expression that are common with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s characters in the film, while the tone of hopelessness that seems to doom their affair is captured just as effectively by Lean in the film’s framing structure.

The film opens with them about to say their final farewell, a singularly undramatic occasion that takes place in the less than impressive setting of the refreshment room at Milford Junction railway station where Laura Jesson and Dr. Alec Harvey first met. Even the emotion of the occasion, necessarily subdued on account of the nature of their secret affair and their reserved personalities, is further undercut by the arrival of a friend of Laura’s who starts chattering on to them, oblivious of the importance of the moment to them. The full import of that final farewell is then revealed in flashback, the casualness of the encounter, the dawning realisation of being swept along in something wonderful, and the same time the recognition that “it’s all no good”, since they fear the impact it will have on their quiet comfortable lives and marriages.

These however are clearly attitudes belonging to another time and place – the cosy familiarity of the waiting room of a railway station where steam trains trundle past, Joyce Carey’s tea room proprietor who lords over the regulars and the employees of the station like a landlady, but has a heart of gold underneath. Even the cinema, the preferred location of Laura and Alec’s encounters, with its organist and smoke-as-much-as-you-please policy seems far removed from the notion of the modern-day cinema experience. Most obviously however, it’s the characters, their moral attitude and their manner of speaking that clearly belongs to yesteryear. Passions are internalised and everyone makes small talk about the weather and the train timetable. When their affair is actually alluded to, it’s almost apologetic for causing such a damned fuss – “Forgive me. Forgive me for meeting you” pleads Alec, guilty over the turmoil their encounter has brought into both their lives. “I’ll forgive you if you forgive me” responds Laura – and an underlying conviction that they can do the honourable thing “if we control ourselves and behave like sensible human beings”.

The film also has its work cut out for it, particularly when relating to a modern cinema audience, since this internalised approach to the unfolding drama is primarily through the narration of a single character, Laura. It’s all frightfully old and mannered in a 1940s’ manner that is almost incomprehensible to a contemporary audience with very different morals, social standards and attitudes towards class and marital infidelity, and indeed different expectations about how they see this sort of thing played out in a modern film drama. Or do they? Isn’t what is really important is whether the situation – a situation that at heart anyone could identify with – rings true? And it’s in this respect that Brief Encounter excels.

Noel Coward’s script is simply marvellous, pinpointing with accuracy the essential characteristics of these people, the lives they lead, the social restrictions they must live under and the dreams they have, capturing it perfectly within precise, subtle dialogue that is as eloquent in what is not said as much as in what is. Much in this respect is covered also within the train station, in its waiting room, in the characters that pass through and work there, even in the trains that pass in the night. The performances may be old-school, but only in as much as they are of the English school of stage acting, studious and refined, capable of tremendous subtlety and nuance of expression. Celia Johnson in particular carries much of the purpose of the film here in an outstanding performance, not merely relying on narration to describe her internal turmoil, but showing it in every glance of longing, confusion, dissemblance, furtiveness, frustration and disappointment.

And ultimately it’s these human qualities that count – the handling and expression of intense feelings and emotions, the struggle to remain honourable towards one’s own nature and towards others – and the quality of Brief Encounter is in how David Lean manages to draw the complexity of these emotions out of the simplicity of the story, making the very best of the limitations of expression afforded by the sets and the reserved nature of the characters while remaining utterly true to them. But let’s not play down the nature of romance either, which is essentially what Brief Encounter is all about, and the reason why the film’s reputation has endured so long. Most extraordinarily and quite brilliantly, in what is a testimony to the combined efforts of writer, director, performers and even Rachmaninov, the film seems to capture the very moment of falling in love. You can actually see the incredible chemistry at work right there on the screen, all of the elements crystallising into that indefinable and most unlikeliest of moments (when discussing lung diseases) when everything comes together and everything is right. If that were the whole story, it wouldn’t be half as effective however, and Brief Encounter, wrapping up as it is within a structure that defines the limitations of that relationship from the outset, only seems to deepen the poignancy of the moment that is doomed the second it is born.


Brief Encounter is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the ITV. The film is presented on BD25 disc with a 1080/24p encode. The disc is encoded for Region B, UK and Europe only.

Given a full digital restoration by the BFI and ITV and funded by the David Lean Foundation, there is no question of the quality of this High Definition transfer being the best the film has ever looked, but it’s not perfect. Perfection however is a lot to ask for a film of this age, and Brief Encounter nonetheless looks exceptionally good, demonstrating just how good a 60 year-old black-and-white film can look. The level of detail, it has to be said, is remarkable. There is scarcely a single mark, scratch or trace of damage to be seen anywhere on the print, the image is perfectly sharp with a requisite softness that prevents it from appearing overly processed, and the tones and black levels are to die for, with outstanding shadow detail visible. Most pleasing of all however is the stability of the transfer that the HD presentation affords. There’s scarcely a flicker or sign of jitter anywhere, the image flowing with wonderful smoothness.

In order to have it look as good as it should in HD however, one suspects that there has been a little extra and ultimately unnecessary polishing of the elements. There’s a disconcerting lack of grain in the image. Some grain is occasionally visible, depending on the quality of the print source – the new restored print was drawn from the best original elements of a number of sources – but for the most part it’s much too smooth. Skin tones in particular are rather pasty and pallid, lacking in finer definition – although that could also be the amount of pancake make-up that is now revealed in a more highly defined image. These issues might trouble those more concerned with the technical minutiae of the transfer than the film itself, which is actually extremely well served, and certainly looking better than it has ever done. The restoration featurette on the DVD should remind the viewer what we normally have to expect from a film print of this age.

There are no lossless options, but the benefits of such an audio mix would be negligible if there were any at all. The audio track accordingly is a straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 mix of the original mono soundtrack. It’s fine within the limitations of the source, coming across clearly with no underlying noise and only a little distortion at louder levels.

Optional English hard of Hearing subtitles are available, in a clear white font. Strangely, they often don’t display exactly word for word what is spoken, but condense the dialogue quite a bit.

The extra features support the film’s history well. A Profile of Brief Encounter (24:06) features contributions from Margaret Barton (Beryl), Sir Anthony Havelock-Allan (producer) and Ronald Neame (producer) talking about how the film came to be made and the magic that was created, with John Sessions also contributing thoughts on the acting. A Restoration Featurette (3:28) shows just what kind of task was involved in restoring the film to a state far in advance of previously available prints. It also includes facts, figures and information about the film over the restoration comparison. The original Trailer (2:35) sums up the content of the film well. A Stills Gallery (0:56) shows annotated production stills and comes with the omnipresent Rachmaninov.

It’s a classic film, sure, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that the attitudes, manners and morals expressed in Brief Encounter just might be a little dated and no longer have anything relevant to say to a younger modern audience. You could also question whether there is even any merit in putting a black-and-white film from 1945 out on a High Definition Blu-ray disc. You might be surprised then to find that, while age certainly plays a part on both counts Brief Encounter remains essential viewing. It’s not considered a classic for no reason.


Updated: Apr 09, 2009

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