In several interviews following the release of Carol, Todd Haynes admits to modeling the film’s structure off of Brief Encounter, which is bookended by scenes of lovers being interrupted by an otherwise minor character while offering their goodbyes to one another. While Haynes’s statement suggests the two films may share a kinship of some sort beyond structural similarities, their treatment of human behavior couldn’t be any more at odds, as David Lean’s adaptation of Noël Coward’s play Still Life seeks to penetrate the inner psychological life of Laura (Celia Johnson), a married British woman and mother, while Haynes keeps his characters at arm’s length, emphasizing surfaces and crucial overlaps between appearances of objects and humans.
Lean illuminates Laura’s mindset with a running inner monologue that examines her own feelings and anxieties once her regular Thursday visits to a nearby town are transformed into weekly rendezvous with Alec (Trevor Howard), a kindly physician whose affectionate demeanor appeals to Laura as a flash of sensuality in her otherwise monotonous daily routine. The film correlates Laura’s marital frustration not with sexual dissatisfaction or an abusive spouse, but in her very being as a woman of no particular repute. Laura’s normality marks her, deflates her ability to even conceive of being a woman like that—a woman, that is, who could transform (or is it transgress?) her current position as a dutiful mother in order to recognize her own needs.
Lean’s direction suggests Laura’s environs as a maze of logically devised daily obstacles, where various geographical markers around town—train station, park, movie theater—recur as placeholders for meaningful interaction. Despite Laura’s interest in seeing new films on a weekly basis, she dislikes most of them. However, when Alec accompanies her, she’s able to laugh and seems more forgiving, especially as the pair share a stated enthusiasm for Donald Duck. Filtered through Laura’s recounting of these events, Brief Encounter prizes its protagonist’s freer, less cautious inclinations by allowing her to realize happiness only when she becomes less fussy about certain details.
When Laura verbally acknowledges her reciprocal feelings of love for Alec, the scene is played as a litmus test of Laura’s constant measuring of the moment versus her reticence upon recognition of a broader perspective. If her values, whether moral or ethical, are being tested, the filmmakers don’t reduce the romance to matters of right and wrong. Nor is the film even really about whether or not the couple will ultimately end up together, since it’s directly implied through the frame narrative (much less the film’s title) that their relationship will be cut short. Above all, Lean’s interests lie in the stakes of Laura’s sanity, which at one point deteriorates to almost suicidal lengths.
Yet Brief Encounter, for all of its overt resemblance to the women’s pictures of the 1930s, ultimately raises the stakes of Laura’s individual well-being by transforming her anxieties into those of the United Kingdom as a whole. The film, set in 1938, unfolds at a moment before the catastrophe of World War II, so that Laura’s fear of her previously secure, rational process correlates with the failings of nationalism on a global scale. That is, Laura’s deteriorating sanity isn’t merely about her splintering sense of middle-class protection, but an entirely depleted notion of cultural normalcy following Nazism’s abject use of logical procedure to carry out genocide.
As enacted through fears about one’s life choices, Brief Encounter casts Laura’s sense of doubt as a political problem, where a woman meddling in matters outside of the home allows the darker side of her being to rear its ugly head. At least, that’s how her behavior could have been characterized in the past, where familial roles appeared to have stable meaning. That’s what seems to fascinate Lean: the sense of Laura’s predicament having a wholly different significance in just a seven-year timespan. And that’s what Haynes is getting at in Carol: History, like cinema, is predicated on time-specific perceptions of what was. In both films, the past is not past, but fantasy imbued with the reflexive politics of pastness.
Gorgeous and expertly calibrated, this Blu-ray features a restoration created in 4K resolution from several of the film’s original, duplicate safety negatives. Accordingly, each speck of the frame beams with clarity, as DP Robert Krasker’s chiaroscuro cinematography suffers only in the presence of a few faint scratches and marks that appear throughout. The monaural soundtrack has been digitally restored and appropriately mixed to balance dialogue and score. Only minimal sounds of cracks and clicks remain due to print damage. Overall, it’s more bravura work from the Criterion Collection.
All extras here have been carried over from the Brief Encounter disc released as a part of the David Lean Directs Noël Coward set released in 2012. Film historian Bruce Eder provides a feature-length commentary, which explains both the film’s significance within Lean’s filmography and how it features the first instance of Lean’s "key elements" as a filmmaker. Eder mostly sticks to script and takes each scene as it comes without falling into broad assertions. In a short interview, Barry Day explains the characters’ repetitious lifestyles as being responsible for the film’s ongoing appeal, which spoke to postwar audiences at the time and continues to resonate with viewers for its subtle play with the fantasy and reality of a romantic relationship. "David Lean: A Self Portrait," a rather bland but informative documentary about Lean’s career, appears to have been scanned over from a VHS copy. Accordingly, the clips from films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai featured in the doc are murky and cropped. Finally, there’s a short documentary on the film’s making and a fine essay by historian Kevin Brownlow that provides equal parts biography and close reading.
Hardly a fling, David Lean’s seminal Brief Encounter looks better than ever in 4K resolution on Criterion’s new Blu-ray.