December 18, 1908 – Dame Celia Johnson:
“It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly. So very easy, and so very degrading.”Johnson as Laura in Brief Encounter
The very model for repressed feelings as the English idea, Brief Encounter (1945) is often identified as a David Lean film since we attribute films to directors, but Noël Coward is just as responsible for this, one of the most romantic movies ever. He wrote the screenplay, taking it from his own one-act play, Still Life (1936). Coward made the leads “nice” people: Laura (Celia Johnson), a housewife, and Alec (Trevor Howard), a doctor.
Brief Encounter is the best work Coward did for film, and one of the most emotionally honest movies ever made by a Brit. The film shared the 1946 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival with Billy Wilder‘s Lost Weekend. Johnson was nominated for an Academy Award, along with Lean.
Brief Encounter did good at the box-office and was widely acclaimed when first released. The film is Number Two on the British Film Institute‘s Top 100 British films. It was filmed in moody black-and-white.
Johnson was a vedy, vedy English actor, who worked on stage, television and film, including In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), both Lean/Coward projects, and The Captain’s Paradise (1953) with Alec Guinness and Yvonne De Carlo, for which Johnson was BAFTA Award-nominated. A six-time BAFTA nominee, she won for a Supporting Role in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).
Johnson began her career in 1928, and she achieved great success in West End and Broadway productions. She continued performing in theatre for the rest of her life, but much of her later work was in television, including winning a BAFTA for the BBC movie Today, Mrs. Palfrey At The Claremont (1973), which references Brief Encounter.
She defined to perfection English middle and upper-middle class gentility, with her crisp, understated manners and stringent lack of sentimentality. She could do everything from high English comedy whose airs of distraction and self-absorbed remoteness she conveyed so sharply in the works of Coward, yet more surprising, in old age, she performed roles of high tragic velocity and pathos.
With Brief Encounter, where grief-struck but stiff-upper-lipped in a railway station giving a regretful goodbye to adultery without savoring its joys, she became a surprise star. She was known as an elegant light comic actor in the 1930s, and here she was giving the nuances of erotic passion with conviction and restraint.
In the first 15 years of her theatrical career she had played mostly bright young things in period pieces, then it seemed as if she were destined to become a leading classical actor, but instead, she had married reporter Peter Fleming, and had three children. In the 1950s, she briefly appeared on stage. Then, Laurence Olivier asked her in 1964 to play opposite him in Henrik Ibsen‘s Master Builder at the new National Theatre, and she arrived again. In her last decade she became quite simply one of the finest television actors of her generation.
Back to Brief Encounter: It is the story of a middle-aged married man and a middle-aged married woman who meet by accident, fall deeply in love, and agree to separate and get over it. Their rendezvous is a train station café. He is a doctor, who comes in every Thursday to take over the morning shift at the local hospital. She comes into town to go to the library or the movies and do her weekly shopping. He catches a train going one direction and she catches a train going the other. For a few stolen moments each week, over cups of tea, they escape into a world that would probably never have been theirs had they met earlier, when each was free. The tragedy of their romance is that it is doomed to go unconsummated from the start. From the moment the couple realize that their relationship is something stronger than friendship, their happiness is lost. They are guilty of the thought. She becomes suddenly aware of the affection that holds her to her husband and threads that bind her to her home. The man, while ready to take the relationship further, is tender enough to respect her feelings, and so they part.
The film has the benefit of three beautiful performances: Johnson’s, Howard’s, and Cyril Raymond‘s as the husband. Johnson’s face, her walk, and her eyes, can tell a story, or impart a mood, or reveal a confidence with quiet determination.
It was Coward’s preference that family and stability are so respected in this film. Discreetly gay, Coward knew enough not to offend middle-class propriety. Lean was always in rebellion against restraint, he was married six times; on his own, he might have pushed Laura and Alec further than made Coward comfortable. If that seems odd, you should know Lean was Coward’s discovery. As a young editor, he was noticed by Coward and promoted to help direct and then take over directing In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit (1945) and finally Brief Encounter.
Coward’s Still Life is one of ten short plays in Tonight At 8.30, designed for Gertrude Lawrence and Coward to be performed in various combinations as triple bills. All scenes in Still Life are set in the cafe of a railway station. As is common in films based on stage plays, the film depicts places only referred to in the play, plus scenes were added which are not in the play: a scene in a rowing boat on a lake; Laura wandering alone in the dark, a drive in the country, sitting down on a park bench, smoking in public and being confronted by a police officer.
Some scenes are less ambiguous in the film. In the play it is left for the audience to decide whether the two lovers consummate their relationship; in the film it is intimated that they do not. In the film, Laura has just arrived at Alec’s borrowed flat when the owner returns and is immediately led out by Alec via the service door. Later, when Laura seems to want to throw herself in front of an express train, the film makes the intention clear.
Also, in the play, the characters at the train station are very much aware of the growing relationship between Laura and Alec and sometimes mention it, but in the film, they barely take any notice of them or what they are doing. The final scene of the film, showing Laura embracing her husband after he shows that he has noticed her distance in the past few weeks and may even have guessed the reason, is not in the play.
So the relationship that begins with a piece of grit in Laura’s eye and Alec’s unquestionably clean handkerchief will lead to afternoons together, lunch and a visit to a movie theatre that is showing something called Flames Of Passion), the country drive, and an awkward trip to a friend’s flat, leads to nothing happening. Can you a find movie today where nothing happens? But at the end of World War II, movie theatres were packed and sexual desire on the screen was fabulously, sometimes hysterically, informed by self-denial, shyness and censorship. In 1945, there wasn’t a hint of irony, even in the film’s pounding Rachmaninov score. Today, the set-up would be played as satire, probably by Judd Apatow.
But Brief Encounter is so moving today because it is so well made, and because Johnson’s voiceover narration is truly anguished, and because Johnson and Howard are perfect. I know “perfect” seems dangerously old-fashioned, but that’s not fair. Howard could play a wild man as proved by his later work.
It is mostly because of Johnson that the film is still so moving. Her voice is measured but those big round eyes are desperate.
In 1982, 76-year-old Johnson was busy on tour in a play. During a day-off, Johnson returned home and invited friends over to play bridge and suffered a stroke during the game. Her brother-in-law was writer Ian Fleming, and her daughters inherited the James Bond books rights and royalties.