The Story (continued)
Brief Encounter (1946)
Ashamed and confused, Laura breathlessly runs from the apartment in the driving rain down the city street. She realizes her obligation to phone her husband and manufacture a devious excuse for missing dinner. [The film rejoins Laura - with her voice-over]:
I ran until I couldn't run any longer. I leaned against a lamp post to try and get my breath. I was in one of those side roads that lead out of the high street. I know it was stupid to run but I couldn't help myself. I felt so utterly humiliated and defeated and so dreadfully, dreadfully ashamed. After a minute or two, I pulled myself together. I walked on in the direction of the station. It was still raining but not very much. I suddenly realized that I couldn't go home, not until I got myself more under control and had a little time to think. Then I thought of you waiting at home and the dinner being spoilt. So I went into the high street and found a tobacconist and telephoned to you. Do you remember? Laura: ...Everything's perfectly all right, but I shan't be home to dinner. I'm with Miss Lewis. Miss Lewis, dear. You know, the librarian I told you about at Boots...Well, I met her in the high street a little while ago in a terrible state. Her mother's been taken ill and I promised to stay with her until the doctor comes... It's awfully easy to lie when you know you're trusted implicitly. So very easy and so very degrading. I started walking without much purpose. I turned out of the high street almost immediately. I was terrified that I might run into Alec. I was pretty certain that he would come after me to the station. I walked for a long while. Finally, I found myself at the War Memorial, you know, it's right at the other side of the town. It had stopped raining altogether, and I felt stifflingly hot, so I sat down on one of the seats.
Fleeing from her humiliation and shame - and from the apartment, Laura ends up in a small square. From a high, wide-angle shot, she is shown as a tiny figure approaching a bench, overshadowed by a large dark, disapproving public statue - a War Memorial monument to her left in the foreground. The statue (with phallic elements) 'witnesses' her inner state of mind, looming down over her and her recent sinful, scandalous behavior. Soon, a policeman approaches - a symbol of social order and law-abiding enforcement, and she feels guilt ("I felt like a criminal"):
There was nobody about and I lit a cigarette. I know how you disapprove of women smoking in the street. I do too really, but I wanted to calm my nerves and I thought it might help. I sat there for ages, I don't know how long. Then I noticed a policeman walking up and down a little way off. He was looking at me rather suspiciously. Presently, he came up to me. Bobbie/Policeman (Richard Thomas): Feeling all right, Miss?
Laura: Yes, thank you.
Bobbie: Waiting for someone?
Laura: No. No, I'm not waiting for anyone.
Bobbie: Don't go and catch cold now. The damp might be setting about on seats.
Laura: I'm going now anyhow. I've got to catch a train.
Bobbie: Are you sure you feel quite all right?
Laura: Quite thank you. Good night.
Bobbie: Good night, Miss. I walked away, trying to look casual, knowing that he was watching me. I felt like a criminal. I walked rather quickly back in the direction of the high street. I got to the station fifteen minutes before the last train to Ketchworth. And then I realized that I'd been wandering about for over three hours, but it didn't seem to be any time at all.
Laura requests a glass of brandy and a piece of paper and an envelope from the attendant at the tea room bar, just as the establishment is about to close. While pondering what to write, Alec finds her there with a worried look on his face:
Alec: Darling, I've been looking for you everywhere.
Laura: Please go away. Please don't...Please go away.
Alec: I've watched every train. I can't leave you like this...You're being dreadfully cruel. It was just an accident that he came back. He doesn't know who you are. He never even saw you.
Laura: I suppose he laughed, didn't he?...
Alec: He didn't speak of you. We spoke of some nameless creature who has no reality at all.
Laura: Well, why didn't you tell him who I was? Why didn't you say we were cheap and low, not cowards...
Alec: Stop it, Laura. Pull yourself together.
Laura: But it's true, isn't it? It's true.
Alec: It's nothing of the sort. We know we really love each other. That's true. That's all that really matters.
Laura: It isn't all that really matters. Other things matter too. Self-respect matters and decency. I can't go on any longer.
Alec: Could you really say goodbye? Never see me again?
Laura: Yes, if you'd help me.
Alec: I love you, Laura. I shall love you always until the end of my life. I can't look at you now cause I know something. I know that this is the beginning of the end. Not the end of my loving you but the end of our being together. But not quite yet, darling. Please. Not quite yet.
Laura: Very well. Not quite yet.
Alec: I know what you feel about this evening. I mean about the sordidness of it. I know about the strain of our different lives - our lives apart from each other. The feeling of guilt and doing wrong is too strong, isn't it? Too great a price to pay for the happiness we have together. I know all this because it's the same for me too.
Laura: You can look at me now. I'm all right.
Alec: Let's be very careful. Let's prepare ourselves. A sudden break now, however brave and admirable will be too cruel. We can't do such violence to our hearts and minds.
Laura: Very well.
As the bell for Laura's train rings, Alec announces his family's anticipated departure to Johannesburg, South Africa where he will join a medical clinic. It is a gentlemanly, responsible gesture to resolve the dilemma of their relationship, and it signals the coming end of their short-lived romance and the "only way out" to end their pain:
Alec: I'm going away...
Laura: I see...
Alec: ...but not quite yet.
Laura: Please, not quite yet. (The leave the tea room and walk together toward the station platform.)
Alec: I want you to promise me something.
Laura: What is it?
Alec: Promise me that however unhappy you are and however much you think things over that you'll meet me again next Thursday.
Alec: Outside the hospital at 12:30.
Laura: All right, I promise.
Alec: I've got to talk to you. I've got to explain.
Laura: About going away?
Laura: Where will you go? Where can you go? You can't give up your practice.
Alec: I've had a job offered me. I wasn't going to tell you. I wasn't going to take it, but I know now it's the only way out.
Alec: A long way away - Johannesburg.
Laura (startled): Oh Alec.
Alec: My brother's out there. They're opening a new hospital and they want me to...It's a fine opportunity, really. I'll take Madeleine and the boys. It's been torturing me, the necessity of making a decision one way or the other. I haven't told anybody. Not even Madeleine. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving you. But now I see it's got to happen soon anyway. It's almost happening already.
Stunned, Laura sits down as the news has a delayed impact upon her and begins to sink in.
Laura: How soon will you go?
Alec: Almost immediately, in about two weeks time.
Laura: Quite near, isn't it?
Alec: Do you want me to stay? Do you want me to turn down the offer?
Laura: Oh don't be foolish, Alec.
Alec: I'll do whatever you say.
Laura (crying): That's unkind of you, my darling.
Train Announcement: The train for Ketchworth is now arriving at platform three.
In a well-remembered image, Laura is led to the train in Alec's arm. She steps in the car, turns, and leans out the window.
Alec: You're not angry with me are you?
Laura: No, I'm not angry. I don't think I'm anything really. I just feel tired.
Alec: Forgive me.
Laura: Forgive you for what?
Alec: For everything. For meeting you in the first place. For taking a piece of grit out of your eye. For loving you. For bringing you so much misery.
Laura: I'll forgive you if you'll forgive me.
In a memorable scene on their last day together, their seventh and final Thursday meeting, they finish with another ride into the country, and a second visit to the stone bridge.
All that was a week ago. It's hardly credible that it should be so short a time. Today was our last day together. Our very last together in all our lives. I met him outside the hospital as I had promised at 12:30. At 12:30 this morning. That was only this morning. We drove into the country again, but this time he hired a car. I lit cigarettes for him now and then as we went along. We didn't talk much. I felt numbed and hardly alive at all. We had lunch in a village pub. Afterwards, we went to the same bridge over the stream, the bridge that we'd been to before. Those last few hours went by so quickly. As we walked through the station, I remembered thinking: 'This is the last time with Alec. I shall see all this again, but without Alec.' I tried not to think of it, not to let it spoil our last moments together.
They share a final cup of tea and a brief and painful parting to end their clandestine affair. The tea room scene is played out a second time, but this time from the perspective of Laura's subjective memory. Their final meeting is all the more poignant, as it marks the beginning (and end) of the narrative - and the end of their affair. They sit at a table - the camera closely centered on them as they have their last intimate conversation together:
Alec: Are you all right, darling?
Laura: Yes, I'm all right.
Alec: I wish I could think of something to say.
Laura: It doesn't matter, not saying anything, I mean.
Alec: I'll miss my train and wait and see you into yours.
Laura: No, please don't. I'll come over with you to your platform. I'd rather...Do you think we shall ever see each other again?
Alec: I don't know. Not for years, anyway.
Laura: The children will all be grown up. I wonder if they never meet and know each other.
Alec: Couldn't I write you, just once in a while?
Laura: No, Alec please. You know we promised.
Alec (confessing): Oh, my dear. I do love you so very much. I love you with all my heart and soul.
Laura: I want to die. If only I could die.
Alec: If you die, you'd forget me. I want to be remembered.
Laura: Yes, I know, I do too.
Alec: We've still got a few minutes.
At this moment, they are disrupted by Dolly's loud voice, interrupting their conversation. The camera is focused on Laura's face (her face is the only thing illuminated in the frame). Her voice-over monologue of her inner thoughts reflects her annoyance and disturbance with Dolly:
It was cruel of fate to be against us right up to the very last minute. Dolly Messiter. Poor, well-meaning, irritating Dolly Messiter crashing into those last few precious minutes we had together. She chattered and fussed but I didn't hear what she said. I felt dazed and bewildered. Alec behaved so beautifully, with such perfect politeness. No one could have guessed what he was really feeling. And then...[the departure bell for Alec's train rings]
Laura: Here's your train.
Alec: Yes, I know.
Dolly: Oh, aren't you coming with us?
Alec: No, I go in the opposite direction. My practice is in Churley.
Dolly: Oh, I see.
Alec: I'm a general practitioner at the moment.
Laura: Dr. Harvey's going out to Africa next week.
Dolly: Oh, how thrilling.
Train Announcer: The train now arriving at platform four is the 5:40 for Churley...
Alec: I must go. Goodbye. (He rises and shakes hands with Dolly and then rests his hand lightly on Laura's right shoulder for a moment.)
I felt the touch of his hand on my shoulder for a moment. And then he walked away, away out of my life forever. Dolly still went on talking, but I wasn't listening to her. I was listening to the sound of his train starting. And it did.
The camera again focuses on Laura's illuminated face as she listens to the sound of his departing train.
I said to myself: 'He didn't go. At the last minute his courage failed him; he couldn't have gone. Any minute now, he'll come back into the refreshment room pretending he's forgotten something.' I prayed for him to do that, just so that I could see him again, for an instant. (Pause) But the minutes went by...[the departure bell for the express train rings]
Dolly again asks for chocolate and walks away from the table. As the roaring sound of the approaching express train increases in volume, the camera tilts to the right, causing the horizontal image to slowly move counter-clockwise. Laura's despairing mind causes her to literally jump up abruptly from the table and rush outside the tea room to the rail platform - still at a tilted angle. Her internal state is externalized and stylized as disorienting and unbalanced. In one of the film's most memorable sequences, at the edge of the platform as the train screeches through, the wind blows back her hair and the light from the passing cars flickers and pounds across her tortured face. Her face displays wide-eyed despair and defeat as the lights beat out the rhythm of the clattering of the train's wheels. Anguished by Alec's departure, she contemplates suicide by throwing herself under the passing train, but she doesn't go through with her mad, self-destructive urge. She lacks the courage to do so. When the express train has completely passed through the station, the camera moves back to a horizontal, untilted position.
I meant to do it, Fred, I really meant to do it. I stood there trembling right on the edge, but I couldn't. I wasn't brave enough. I should like to be able to say that it was the thought of you and the children that prevented me but it wasn't. I had no thoughts at all, only an overwhelming desire not to feel anything ever again. Not to be unhappy anymore. I turned. I went back into the refreshment room. That's when I nearly fainted.
In the final scene following their parting after such a brief encounter, her flashback ends as the film jumps from her standing at the doorway of the tea room, to a view of her seated in her armchair in her home - stuck back in her predictable and humdrum middle-class existence and routine. Dazed, disoriented, defeated (?) and jarred by memories of her passionate love affair, she is in the company of Fred - her unemotional husband. It is quite possible that he is aware of how close he'd come to losing her when he kneels beside her and asks:
Laura: Yes, dear.
Fred: Whatever your dream was, it wasn't a very happy one, was it?
Fred: Is there anything I can do to help?
Laura: Yes, Fred, you always have.
Fred: You've been a long way away.
Fred: Thank you for coming back to me. (Laura weeps in Fred's arms.)
Also Worth Your Attention...
AMC Filmcritic's Review of Brief Encounter