Monday, 14 February 2011

“Brief Encounter” – A Review Of The 1945 British Classic, Now Fully Restored & Reissued On BLU RAY in 2009.

"…I’ve Fallen In Love…I Didn’t Know That Such Violent Things Could Happen To Ordinary People…"

London in 1945 is a world of Watney's Brown Ale, Sunlight Soap and Capstan's Full Strength Cigarettes. There are usherettes in cinemas, sticky buns under glass, stippled pigskin handbags and big-wheeled perambulators. And into the Refreshment Rooms of Milford Junction Train Station step a man and a woman catching the 5:40 to Churley and the 5:50 to Ketchworth who sip tea and say things like "rather" and "beastly" and "most awfully sorry". And into our forbidden romantic consciousness lodges David Lean's terribly British morality tale and cinematic legend..."Brief Encounter".

STORY/LOCATION:
Lean picked up the option on Noel Coward's 1935 short play "Still Life" and quickly extended and renamed it "Brief Encounter" with the help of Anthony Havelock-Allen and Ronald Neame. It was then decided by both its backers and the British Government to locate the shoot at Carnforth Train Station in Lancashire (the Second World War was winding down at this point in history, but night-bombing was still a very real threat in London). Filming began in February 1945 and was shot at night after the stations business day had ended. UK released in November 1945 (1946 in the USA), it received three Academy Nominations - Best Actress, Screenplay and Director (a first for a British Director).

ACTORS:
Cyril Raymond plays Laura's rather soppy husband Fred Jesson who on seeing Laura in distress offers to help her by inviting her to do the Times Crossword Puzzle with him. He is a nice man and they are a 'happily married couple' - but he is clearly unaware of the hurricane taking place in London every Thursday between his demure wife and a total stranger. Long-time Ealing Comedy regular Stanley Holloway plays Milford Station's Senior Ticket Collector Albert Godby whose heart and fancy extends to Myrtle Bagot the haughty Refreshment Room head-lady played by Joyce Carey. Myrtle primly refutes but secretly enjoys Albert's 'saucy' advances ("I'm sure I don't know to what you are referring...") while Dolly Messiter is also brilliant as Everley Gregg - Laura's 'gossiping acquaintance' who talks 'nineteen to the dozen' in the café and on train home.

But the movie belongs to its two leads - Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Neither were classic Hollywood hunks - and in some respects it was their very ordinariness that gave their performances such power - even danger. Celia Johnson plays Laura Jesson - suburban housewife to Fred and mother to their plumy-mouthed children - Bobby and Margaret. Every Thursday she wanders into London on the steam train from her suburban home in Ketchworth for a day out. Trevor Howard plays Dr. Alec Harvey who commutes from a practice in Churley to a London hospital that specializes in preventative medicine (he will leave England shortly for South Africa). He is married to Madeleine (whom we never see) and also has two children. The Doctor and the Housewife meet one Thursday by chance in the train station's tearooms and after only a few weeks - fall passionately in love. But they are already married. And these are honourable people who don't want to be dishonourable. So they're faced with a predicament their respective decencies know will cause real heartache if they go ahead with their flight of fantasy (run off with each other to exotic places - as she dreams on the train). They must make an agonizing decision and ultimately sacrifice their 'true' love...

The other big star of the film is Noel Coward's screenplay. Coward was of course 'gay' in a Britain that barely tolerated a napkin out of place - and with this in mind, you can't help but feel that the thread of unrequited love runs throughout the entire piece. It is Oscar Wilde's famous phrase moulded into a film - Laura and Alec's illicit passion is "the love that dares not speak its name".

PRINT:
Which brings us to this 2009 BLU RAY reissue. The black and white stock has been fully restored by The British Film Institute (BFI) in conjunction with ITV Studios/The David Lean Foundation and CINEIMAGE - and their combined work here is exceptional. Even as the open credits show a speeding steam train race through a station while Rachmaniov's Piano Concert No. 2 plays - the difference is shocking. Forget all the old line-riddled scratch-filled versions you've seen down through the decades, this wonderfully clean restoration is the best the film has ever looked. The original 4:3 letterbox aspect is used as default (centred on your screen) - and even if you opt for Wide or Full Screen mode, it doesn't stretch the image to any real detriment. Here are some examples of how good it looks...

* The close up on Dolly's lips on the train - you can now see her make-up and lipstick
* Laura at home sewing in a chair - her perfectly pressed blouse and big buttons - her gold bracelet - all incredibly clear
* The mirror scene in Laura's bedroom when she first lies to her husband - the clear reflection in the glass - the music and script - all gives it a new 'world-closing-in-on-you' feel
* Laura and Alec go out for a clandestine drive in the country and stop at a bridge over a stream - you can see the glinting of the water on their coats - beautifully clear
* As Laura runs away from the flat owned by Stephen (Alec's Doctor colleague) where she might have given in to her emotions for Alec - she runs in the rain down a city street at night - the picture quality is beautiful (so noir)
* In a telephone kiosk in a tobacconist shop telephoning her husband to say that she's going to be late - beautiful shadows and light
* Sitting down on the bench beside the War Memorial - cold and ashamed - as a lone London Bobby approaches her and asks how she is

PACKAGING/LANGUAGES/EXTRAS:
The red and gold outer card-wrap has embossed script on it - the scene in the Regent Park's boathouse when he is drying his clothes and he so eloquently confesses his love for her - "I love your wide eyes...and the way you laugh at my jokes..." There isn't a booklet which is a bit of a visual let down, but there are extras worth noting - "A Profile Of Brief Encounter" which features an interview with the young waitress in the tea room - actress Beryl Walters and a history of the shoot (the teahouse was a stage built beside the Carnforth Train Station). There's also the Theatrical Trailer, a Stills Gallery and a piece on the restoration process. Subtitles are only in English and English for the Hard Of Hearing.

Another point worth mentioning is that Celia Johnson's character is given the ingenious device of a 'voiceover' - blocking out the jabbering busybody or the intrusive world in general. It allowed Johnson to say heavy things off screen but more importantly it gave us Laura's 'true' thoughts - and ultimately a way to empathize with her yo-yo feelings of elation and recrimination. The dialogue too was also so subtly full of suggestion - "I hardly know him at all really..." (querying her affections) - "You could never be dull..." (his growing passion for her) - her joy after they've shared their first kiss "And I'd said I loved him. And it was true..."

It's an innocent world really, so it was probably genuinely shocking to the audience of the day when Laura disembarks towards the end of the film from the train home only to run to Alec who is waiting in his friend's flat (a doctor called Stephen played so coldly by Valentine Dyall). Are they going to consummate their love - regardless of the cost? Will they be so cruel to their partners and especially to their children? What does 'one' do? Well buying this classic on Blu Ray at a penny less than nine pounds is a good start...

In the decades that have since passed, David Lean's 'frightfully' downbeat British romance has been parodied relentlessly and beloved with a passion in equal measure. And yet it still holds a powerful resonance even today and is likely to make 'one' reach for a handkerchief - and not because there's some grit in your eye...

"Brief Encounter" on BLU RAY is a triumph and both The British Film Institute and CINEIMAGE are to be congratulated on this reissue and its wonderfully restored print. In Celia's words "I want to remember every minute...always...always...to the end of my days..."

Well now we can.

PS: for other superb restorations on BLU RAY, see also my reviews for "The Italian Job", "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning", "The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner", "North By Northwest", "Cool Hand Luke", "The Dambusters", "The Prisoner - The Complete (UK TV) Series In High Definition", "Braveheart", "Snatch", "The Ladykillers", "The African Queen", "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", "Back To The Future Trilogy" and "Kelly's Heroes".

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