Secret Style Icon No 14: Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter

If you were expecting saucy romance (or aliens) from a film called Brief Encounter, this British masterpiece of the 1940s instead offers a wonderful oddyssey of longing, compromise, disappointment and despair. I love it. From the cut-glass accents and minutae of everyday middle class life (making a phonecall from the tobacconists, taking brandy in a tea shop, that sort of thing) to Celia Johnson’s meticulous portrayal of Laura’s prolonged heartbreak, and the dishy doctor love interest, this film has everything you need for a November night in with a supply of ice lollies and some penguin PJs.

This film was banned in Ireland when it was released in 1945 due to its positive portrayal of an adulteress, and Laura certainly is a woman you find yourself rooting for. Frail, homely, wide-eyed and graceful, she is decidely a middle-aged married woman of her time. She has a weekly routine of going to see a film at the Palladium by herself, taking her library books back to Boots (the chemist, who knew) and then taking tea at the station before catching her train home. As she puts it, she is a ‘heppily merried woman’ and this is enough. Until (drumroll) Dr. Alec Harvey appears in the teashop one night. He helps Laura to get a piece of coal dust out of her eye. Such humble beginnings, and what a romance follows. Laura muses at one point, much later: ‘I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t know such violent things could happen to ordinary people’.

Stylish fitted suits, hats at a jaunty angle and a dedication to the status quo seem to make up the surface of Laura’s life, while underneath – as we glimpse in her narration – is a dark landscape of nihilism. Alex sees it at once, and declares her ‘too sane’. At her most macabre, Laura reminds herself of the inconsequentiality of it all: ‘This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair.’

Her happiness and despair are depicted so tenderly that it seems – some 60-odd years later – a remarkable film; a humane, thoughtful and very delicate unfolding of the turmoil of a woman whose life has all but closed down on itself. Laura sits beside the fire one night with her husband as he reads the Times crossword, and blurts out, ‘Fred, I had lunch with a strange man today and then he took me to the movies’. Her husband, engrossed in his paper, slowly responds ‘good for you’. Laura laughs dismally.

A very innocent affair follows, with boating trips and lunch in teashops, and the spark between the pair is barely expressed, until Alec declares, with quiet resignation, ‘You know what’s happened, don’t you? I’ve fallen in love with you’. The feeling between them is the perfect foil to their otherwise proper, upright, respectable personas. Can Laura make a break for freedom, or is there ‘no time left now’ for either of them to live a different, better life? You’ll just have to watch it and see. (It’s also a fantastic insight into English accents of the 1940s – ‘Awf’ instead of ‘off’). Pure class.

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