'Brief Encounter': Sympathetic Adulterers in David Lean Classic

Brief Encounter Celia Johnson Trevor Howard
Brief Encounter with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.

Brief Encounter one-line synopsis:

  • A married doctor (Trevor Howard) and a housewife (Celia Johnson) have an adulterous (and platonic) affair.

The Pros:

  • Shadow-bathed, smoke-enshrouded railway stations (cinematography by Robert Krasker) to the strains of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2. Enough to turn the jadedest among us into a wide-eyed romantic.
  • David Lean's delicate, compassionate direction; and Lean, Ronald Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allan's sensitive adaptation of Noël Coward's play Still Life. No Hollywood ending here, and no syrupy, cutesy moments, either. Just as important, neither the director nor the screenwriters are ever either judgmental or condescending toward their characters.
  • Best Actress Oscar nominee and New York Film Critics winner Celia Johnson's performance as Brief Encounter's adulterous but sympathetic, stiff-upper-lipped but passionate, gloriously happy but guilt-ridden, and most sad-eyed housewife in all of England. Just as effective is Cyril Raymond's outstanding supporting turn as her husband.
  • Historical curiosity: The friend's apartment scene – in which the adulterous couple's love affair almost gets physical – inspired Billy Wilder's The Apartment.
  • And last but definitely not least, the film's final moment: “Thank you for coming back to me.” When you watch Brief Encounter, this line will make heart-smashing sense to you.

The Cons:

  • No actual cons, really. That said, the humorous bits featuring Stanley Holloway and Joyce Carey wouldn't be missed if they disappeared, while Trevor Howard doesn't fully convey his character's passion or inner turmoil. That's why Brief Encounter rests squarely on the long eyelashes of its female star.

The Question Mark:

  • Did the husband know? I'd say he did. In fact, I'm sure he did. Others are just as sure he didn't. According to a friend who knows Brief Encounter co-screenwriter Ronald Neame, the future director of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Poseidon Adventure said that No, the husband didn't know. I say he did.

In Sum:

  • Brief Encounter is a masterful, deeply moving love story for adults.

BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945). Dir.: David Lean. Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond. Scr.: David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan; from Noel Coward's play Still Life.

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1 Comment to 'Brief Encounter': Sympathetic Adulterers in David Lean Classic

  1. Phillip Wand

    I agree with you, the husband knew, that's what he meant when he said “thanks for coming back to me.” He had feared he would lose her for good, and what could that loss be to, if not another man?