Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #215
Director: David Lean
Starring: Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard
Feature films that come up shy of the ninety minute mark are an interesting beast. In the modern era, they're often films where the director had very little to say or very little ability to say it, so they cut the movie mercifully short. In early Hollywood, those negative connotations were nowhere to be found, and succinctness was often something worth commending. Brief Encounter is a splendid little film that clocks in at 86 minutes and doesn't present much in the way of premise. Quite simply, a British housewife is fed up with domesticity, meets a handsome doctor at a train station, meets him once a week, falls in love with him, and eventually has to let him go to restore her marriage. This doesn't require hours of exposition and development, so director David Lean doesn't give us that. He says everything he needs to say in under ninety minutes, and the film is better for it.
Sadly, "better" doesn't mean "good" in this case. This is one of the more head-scratching entries on the list that I've come across so far. There are really just the two characters – aforementioned housewife Laura and aforementioned handsome doctor Alec – neither of whom are terribly multidimensional, and Lean practically insults us by letting Laura tell us everything that goes through her mind with poorly written narration rather than just letting the actors act. The open-on-the-ending device is somewhat cleverly used, but it's blindingly obvious that that's what's happening within the first five minutes of the film, so it's an ultimately wasted technique. Maybe audiences loved this in 1945, but even for its time it's thoroughly unimpressive.
A big part of why this movie hasn't held up is because in 1945, an extramarital affair – even without any strong sexual implications – was scandalous. Now, meeting a man for drinks at a train station once a week and taking a spin in his canoe is far from the sordid event that it was when Brief Encounter was released. Unfortunately, the entire movie hinges on the affair being taboo. Sure, one could point to Laura's dissatisfaction with domesticity as some kind of early manifestation of feminism on film, but the actual implications of this in the movie are far too weak to hold any water. This is essentially a movie about a woman who falls in love with someone she isn't married to who she leaves so she can stay with her husband because that's the right thing to do. That's about as far from feminism as it gets, so I don't buy that this is a women's lib picture.
Brief Encounter is not an awful movie. It has decent performances given the pedestrian script, and it's directed quite well, if a bit minimalistically, by a perfectly capable filmmaker. The score is even pretty cool; it's centered on Rachmaninoff's gorgeous second piano concerto. I just can't fathom how it would cross someone's mind to put this in the Top 250, or to have it ranked highly on a personal list. It's just not that good.
The Good: Can I say the score even though it wasn't specifically written for this film? Rachmaninoff makes my heart smile. If I can't, I'll say the succinctness. As it stands, this movie is average, but at 100+ minutes, it would flat out suck.
The Bad: The premise just doesn't do it for me. Maybe I shouldn't watch a 1945 romance film directly after something written by Charlie Kaufman ever again.
The Skinny: I don't think it deserves to be on the list.