A Look at David Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)


To view Brief Encounterclick here.

It’s not often you come across a story centering around infidelity that is portrayed as sweet and innocent, deserving of the respect and empathy of its audience. In film, especially classics, adultery is typically met with some form of harsh punishment, particularly for the women involved. David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), based on playwright Noël Coward’s play Still Life (1936), offers a snapshot of the short-lived romance between two people stuck in the monotonous rut that life can occasionally works its way into. Lean’s film handles the delicate, complicated nature of infidelity with sensitivity and compassion. Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard) are not careless in their affair, at least not at first. They know that any kind of a future together is impossible. They acknowledge their spouses and families back home. They understand the social implications of an affair. Both Laura and Alec are seeking something that was lost long ago in their marriages. Perhaps a sense of adventure or simply yearning for that exciting feeling that comes with a new romance, if only for a brief moment.

In the first minutes of Brief Encounter, we unknowingly witness Laura and Alec’s final minutes together, publicly staged, before parting ways forever. Although the full story of their relationship has yet been told, it’s clear this moment is significant and the story leading up to it a deep, emotional journey. We know nothing about these two people, yet somehow we know everything. The love, respect, friendship and sadness is so strongly conveyed through coded expressions and exchanged glances; we know this is a rather melancholy meeting, and not a joyful reunion over tea.


Laura Jesson is like so many suburban housewives: in a stable marriage that, while once romantic, has now evolved into a secure, if boring, relationship. There’s nothing particularly wrong with her marriage; her husband obviously adores her and she appears to be happy enough. It isn’t until her weekly shopping trip to town and a random meeting with a charming doctor, Alec Harvey, that she realizes the depths of her loneliness and the possibility of a greater love. This realization isn’t without some major soul searching, however. Laura’s feelings for Alec cause her great stress, as she knows that she mustn’t stray from her husband and obligations at home. Laura allows for a friendship to develop between her and Alec, and while it’s relatively innocent on the surface, she’s far more emotionally invested than she should be. Laura also lies to her husband about the details of her trips to town, typically a good indicator that something is wrong or not. Laura is clearly bothered by her lies (sometimes only by omission) and it becomes obvious that dishonesty is new territory for her.

Laura hasn’t consummated her relationship with Alec, but she believes that she has been unfaithful emotionally, and the self-imposed guilt starts to eat away at her conscience. With conflicting feelings of both guilt and an increasing affection for Alec, Laura finds herself on the verge of falling into a passionate affair, coming to her senses before making a regrettable mistake. Although both Laura and Alec are married to others, it’s clear they should be together. Two inherently good people, too good in fact, to give themselves a chance at true happiness.


Brief Encounter is beautifully simple and effective in its storytelling. This fleeting romance between Laura and Alec exists solely because of the brief convergence of two trains, both departing around the same time but leaving the station in opposite directions. Those same two trains cruelly dictate Laura and Alec’s time together as they both rely upon them to return home to their families. Every goodbye between them is far too quick, but of course there’s never enough time for two lovers to say goodbye. Each farewell is more and more difficult for Laura and Alec, as their resolve is quickly fading. These farewells also become more passionate, with the foggy train platform serving as an incredibly romantic setting.


Celia Johnson is perfect as the unhappy and lovelorn Laura Jesson. Her quiet elegance, expressive eyes and delightful laugh gives Laura Jesson a sweet sincerity. Laura’s toying with the idea of an affair with Alec is wrong, yet her happiness hinges on it. It’s hard to begrudge such a lovely woman the possibility of true love and happiness; Johnson is responsible for making Laura an empathetic character, somehow finding a moral center for her on the verge of committing an amoral act. Trevor Howard, in only his second credited role and later known more as a character actor, is surprisingly romantic. Far from matinee idol looks, Howard is real, giving Alec Harvey an honest and pure quality. With their quiet and reserved performances, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard breathe life into Laura and Alec; two average people living average lives who find themselves in an unexpected and extraordinary romance, however fleeting it may be.

Jill Blake

7 Responses A Look at David Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)
Posted By Kira : March 18, 2017 5:55 am

This article is incredibly moving; Brief Encounter is my favorite movie, and this article perfectly captures the spirit of the movie.

Posted By Kira : March 18, 2017 5:57 am

This article was very moving; Brief Encounter is my favorite movie and this article captures the spirit of the film very much.

Posted By Charles Berger : March 18, 2017 9:01 am

Brief Encounter, is a film that could describe a great many people
in similar circumstances. I have watched it some 20 times. Prior to viewing the movie a number of years ago, I was not really familiar with Celia Johnson. After watching B.E. she is now a favorite of mine. Having seen Trevor Howard in many later movies, I was aware of him in this one of his earlier flicks. As Jill states above, one doesn’t think of Howard as a romantic leading man. However, he pulls that off quite nicely, without the pretty boy looks.
For those that haven’t seen this 1945 movie, I do recommend you watch it if you can.
Jill, you nailed this great movie!!!

Posted By James Bigwood : March 18, 2017 6:13 pm

I first saw her as Miss Mackay in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brody” and then saw her on stage with Ralph Richardson in “Lloyd George Knew My Father”, a forgettable play but with those two amazing actors in it, so she started out as old in my mind. It was a revelation to see her in “Brief Encounter”.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 18, 2017 6:42 pm

Great movie, beautifully captured by your post.

Posted By kingrat : March 19, 2017 2:26 pm

Jill, thank you for a wonderful post about one of my favorite films. A couple of things I’ve noticed on subsequent viewings: BRIEF ENCOUNTER is the story that Celia Johnson’s character tells herself about the relationship. The film is mostly seen from her point of view.

Lean has a great deal of fun with the movie-within-the-movie, FLAMES OF PASSION, which we see trailers and billboards for, and then the aftermath of what is apparently a dreadful film. This provides a great counterpoint to the tender love story of Johnson and Howard.

It wasn’t until a later viewing that I appreciated everything Lean does with the camera. Like all great films, BRIEF ENCOUNTER is even better on repeated viewings.

Posted By swac44 : March 20, 2017 11:07 am

This is another one of those films that I decided to avoid on the small screen until I could see it in a theatre, and last year it cropped up as Cineplex’s monthly classic (a status usually reserved for films like Groundhog Day or A Few Good Men). I was not disappointed. Everyone has a “wrong place, wrong time” or “one that got away” story, but few films capture that sense of longing the way this one does, and all these years later it’s still overpowering, especially when seen in the appropriate setting.

I love Lean’s intimate films, The Passionate Friends is another that I wish was better known, and I’m still looking forward to seeing Summertime, which I’m guessing I’ll probably have to succumb to on my home screen at some point.

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