For the majority of Brief Encounter, I had very little opinion of Lean’s direction. It’s incredibly dispassionate and functional, but very solid. I think I assumed it’d be innovative (along the lines of the Archers) but it’s not. Very realistic, very British.
Until the second to last scene, when Lean has to essay the most dramatic moment in the film and fails miserably. He gets away with it for a couple reasons, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but it’s a terrible moment and Lean forecasts it as well, making it even worse.
But he gets away with it because Brief Encounter relies very little on his direction. The film rises and falls with Celia Johnson. Though the film is about her and Trevor Howard’s infidelity (he’s a married doctor, she’s a housewife–though she does have a maid and cook, so housewife doesn’t have the same connotation as the American sense), the film’s not about Howard at all. Quite unfortunately, Johnson narrates the film in her internal monologue confession to her boring but loving husband (Cyril Raymond).
If Johnson’s performance can overcome that narration–the film eventually breaks from it to show a single, humanizing scene with Howard–she can make Lean’s unfortunate spinning camera go away.
Brief Encounter is a rather good film, but fails to be anything extraordinary (except in terms of Johnson’s acting).
Oh, I forgot–the other way Lean makes up for the terrible direction moment. Immediately following it, there’s an exquisite fade, simply masterful.
Directed by David Lean; screenplay by Anthony Havelock-Allan, Lean and Ronald Neame, based on a play by Noel Coward; director of photography, Robert Krasker; edited by Jack Harris; produced by Lean, Havelock-Allan and Neame; released by Eagle-Lion Distributors Limited.
Starring Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson), Trevor Howard (Dr. Alec Harvey), Stanley Holloway (Albert Godby), Joyce Carey (Myrtle Bagot), Cyril Raymond (Fred Jesson), Everley Gregg (Dolly Messiter), Marjorie Mars (Mary Norton) and Margaret Barton (Beryl Walters, Tea Room Assistant).