Brief Encounter (1945): David Lean-Noel Coward Sublime Love Story, Starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Oscar Nominated Performances

Based on “Still Life,” Noel Coward’s one-act play, Brief Encounter, David Lean’s extremely moving, exquisitely acted film tells the story of two ordinary people, both contentedly married to other people, who meet, fall in love, and then painfully separate for the sake of their families’ welfare.
Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Trevor Howard established international reputation in this picture as a suburban doctor, a role that led to many other important films, both British and America. Celia Johnson, already a name in the British theater and cinema, gave a distinguished performance as the refined and restrained heroine

The entire action of this intimate chamber piece, about a brief but poignant romance, takes place in a railway station waiting room in a small British town, where the couple accidentally and fatefully meets.

The film’s structure is also interesting. There is voice-over narration, which punctuates the tale, taking the form of an unspoken confession from Laura to her loyal and loving husband.  The narration is from a female subjective POV and it appears at unexpected moments in the evolution of the romance.

Alec (Howard), a doctor, and Laura (Johnson), a housewife, both presumably happily married to others, go to town each Thursday on routine business. When Alec innocently removes a cylinder from Laura’s eye at the train station one random day, the gesture initiates a casual friendship, which then grows into something stronger and newer than either of them could have expected or wished for.

Alec and Laura shares moments of tenderness, personal confidences in serious scenes but there is also dry humor, as when they are watching a schlock film, which is Coward’s way of satirizing the growing importance of frivolous mass entertainment.

While we see Laura’s husband and boy, we never meet Alec’s family; early on, Alec briefly describes his wife when Laura asks “what’s your wife like?”

Rachmaninoff’s music is put to good use, highlighting the overpowering emotions that threaten the reliable dullness of the couple’s otherwise routine life. Krasker’s black-and-white cinematography, marked by both stylization and low-key realism enhances the story, step-by-step with the right shades of mood.

“Brief Encounter” brings Coward’s lovingly and carefully detailed and observant script to glowing life, finding lyricism and poetry in the most seemingly mundane act. For many critics, Lean was far better in directing small-scale films (the first half of his oeuvre) than large, overblown epics (the second half), beginning with the epic war drama, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” in 1957.

The cast is uniformly good, from the comic counterpoint of Joyce Carey, Stanley Holloway (who would achieve international popularity in the musical “My Fair Lady”), and Everley Gregg to the wonderful gentility Cyril Raymond brings to the role of Laura’s husband, Fred.

But the center stage belongs to the leading couple, who are average characters who remained consistently average throughout the end, a fact emphasized by casting actors who were decidedly unglamorous stars, thus increasing the credibility of the romance. It has been credited as an important work of realist cinema for its intimate scale and lack of big-name stars in its cast.

Newcomer Trevor Howard, vastly appealing but not drop-dead dashing, gives a multi-nuanced, ardent and touching performance, which hints at greater things to come in his career.

The ordinary-looking Celia Johnson achieves a heartbreakingly careful, sublimely restrained acting; who can forget her shifty voice, which perfectly reflects the subtle changes in the relationship.

Their final, incredibly tragic meeting occurs in the railway station refreshment room, now seen for a second time with the poignant perspective of their story. As they await a heart-rending final parting, Dolly Messiter, a talkative acquaintance of Laura, invites herself to join them and begins chattering away, utterly oblivious to the couple’s inner misery.

While realizing that they have been robbed of the chance for a final goodbye, Alec’s train arrives. With Dolly still chattering, Alec departs without the passionate farewell for which they both had long.  After shaking Dolly’s hand, he discreetly squeezes Laura on the shoulder and leaves. Laura waits for a moment, anxiously hoping that Alec will walk back into the refreshment room, but he does not.

As the train is heard pulling away, Laura is overwhelmed with emotions and, hearing an approaching express train, she suddenly dashes out to the platform. The lights of the train flash across her face, seen in a mega close-up, as she struggles to conquer a suicidal impulse to jump into the rails.  (Inevitably, we think of Garbo and other actresses who played the titular tragic heroine in Anna Karenina, not to mention the last scene of The Red Shoes, when Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), excruciatingly caught in a conflict between commitment to art and having a loving personal life, throws herself in front of an approaching train).

The very last scene is particularly touching.  Back home, Laura is comforted by her sensitive, ever-understanding husband Fred whose love seems to be unconditional.  Fred has noticed her distance in the past few weeks, although it is not clear if he has guessed the precise reason.  “Thank you for coming back to me,” he says, while she finally let her feelings out and breaks out crying in his arms.


Critical Status:

In 1999, the British Film Institute (BFI) voted Brief Encounter the second greatest British film of all time.

In a 2017 poll of 150 actors, directors, writers, producers and critics for Time Out magazine Brief Encounter ranked the twelfth best British film ever.


Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson)
Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard)
Fred Jesson (Cyril Raymond)
Albert Godby (Stanley Holloway)
Myrtle Bagot (Joyce Carey)
Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg)
Beryl Waters (Margaret Barton
Stanley (Dennis Harkin)
Stephen Lynn (Valentine Dyall)
Mary Norton (Marjorie Mars)


Produced by Noel Coward.
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, and Ronald Neame, based on the play by Noel Coward
Camera; Robert Krasker
Editor: Jack Harris
Music: Sergei Rachmaninoff (Second Piano Concerto)

Distributed by Eagle-Lion Distributors
Release date: November 13, 1945 (London premiere); November 26, 1945 (UK); the movie was released in the U.S. in 1946.
Running time: 86 minutes

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 3

Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, and Ronald Neame
Actress: Celia Johnson

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Alert

This was David Lean’s first Oscar nomination as director. In 1946, “The Best Years of Our Lives” swept most of the Oscars, including Picture, Director for William Wyler, and Screenplay for Robert E. Sherwood.

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Olivia De Havilland in the melodrama, “To Each His Own.”