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Still from Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins

Brief Encounter ★★★★★

My personal logs show that I saw this for the first time in late 2009, but it didn't leave much of an impact on me then, at least not one befitting its greatness. It feels strange to say this but I think I must've learned a little bit more about life (and seen a lot of movies) in these past four years, because suddenly Brief Encounter's making me cry at every turn, making me gasp at its finesse, making me wonder why other love stories even bother.

I don't even know where to start breaking this thing down. I suspect it'll take another half-dozen viewings to wrap myself around everything going on here. Celia Johnson, for example: heartbreaking but restrained when she emotes, reserving much of herself for the film's unbearably honest voiceover narration. Or that narration, which helps get us deep inside Laura's head, into a first-person perspective, and which forms the spine of Brief Encounter's gorgeous sound design. Or the film's structure: flashing back Thursday by Thursday, paralleling Laura and Alec's affair with their respective domestic lives, with the goings-on in the refreshment room, with Laura's rich inner monologue, until finally we double back to the beginning/end and the tragedy opens itself up to us like a flower in bloom.

I just want to immerse myself in this movie. In its chilly gray English suburbs, its moral and romantic tension, its inexhaustible dialogue. The latter's incredibly deft, often pivoting around the real subject at hand, going in the mundane conversational circles that normal people make because Laura and Alec are normal people. Yet even the most seemingly banal digression is loaded with subtext both by phrasing and delivery. Has anyone but Trevor Howard, for example, ever said the word "silicosis" with such tenderness? And god, Johnson's voiceover is thick with verbal treasures, but to pick out just one: "[I] walked home as usual, quite soberly and without wings. Without any wings at all."

This movie (and that voiceover in particular) simply nails how selves work; how we think about and relate to and do battle with our selves. The movie's built out of Laura's fantasies, her self-deceptions, and her compromises, each of them starting inside her head and then growing into reality through her incremental decisions. As Lean's subjective filmmaking repeatedly reminds us, this is a story she's telling herself, trying to understand how a love like this could blossom from her plain old life before finally possibly coming to terms with regret.

So that's the mix of pain and joy I'm gleaning from Brief Encounter right now. I should like to add that I enjoy its echoes with two of my favorite movies, Davies' The Deep Blue Sea and Reed's The Third Man, the latter sharing 3 of its crew members including Howard and (crucially) d.p. Robert Krasker. I hope to revisit Brief Encounter again within four years, and I'm sure that when I do I'll find it a different movie yet again. It's reassuring to know that Laura and Alec will be waiting for me.

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