Despite being released 70 years ago in 1945, Brief Encounter — director David Lean’s tale of two star-crossed lovers desperately trying to have an affair in suburban England — still resonates with modern viewers and offers them plenty to think about. It would be all too easy to brush off the character’s reserved actions as particularly pre-wartime British (the film is set around 1938) and amuse ourselves with how times have changed, as though we would have had none of Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec’s (Trevor Howard) nonsense and just cut to the bed-hopping chase; but if modern reality shows, TV soap dramas, tween-age films, and the proliferation of erotic romance novels adapted into the mainstream have taught us anything, it’s that unfathomably complicated and protracted love affairs can still cut to the moral epicentre of our culture, whether we invite them there or not.
According to critics such as David Thomson, Brief Encounter may well be “the best romantic film of all time”; yet, to a certain extent this praise comes across as slightly jarring, because the story actually presents people frantically attempting to work through their romantic feelings with the results ranging from extreme acts of self-torture and unconsummated love through to a general difficulty in functioning at all well within society.
If rom-coms are the easiest way to zippily engage with the caprices of love and still find a happy ending, then romantic tragedies show the extent to which love can be ruinous, challenging, and largely unfulfilling. Of course, in a romantic tragedy this struggle is counterbalanced by a more heightened appreciation of the times where the spiralling narrative was interrupted by fleeting flashes of passion—instants where in the face of the entire world’s unheeding, uncaring, and unsympathetic actions, two people got together and overcame the odds for a brief moment.
And therein lies the problem…
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