Categories
British Drama Romance

Brief Encounter

Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long.

Elsewhere I recommended In Which We Serve, the first collaboration between Noël Coward and David Lean. As their partnership evolved, Coward ceded full directorial control to Lean and the two men made a series of films (now available as a boxed set from Criterion Collection) that both reflected and defined the image of Englishness for a generation. The strongest of their efforts is 1945’s Brief Encounter.

Expanded from a one-act play of Coward’s, the plot is so simple that it would have been slight in less talented hands. A plain-looking, thoroughly respectable suburban housewife and mother named Laura Jesson is waiting for her regular train on her regular shopping day. A train throws a piece of soot into her eye. The handsome Dr. Alec Harvey comes to her aid and something sparks between them. They meet again by chance, a third time by intention mutually disguised as a trivial convenience, and then, guiltily, on purpose. A forbidden — though by modern standards, extremely restrained — romance develops. But where can it go, for two married parents with a lifetime of British socialization in their veins?

Other than The Browning Version, no British film conveys the nature of quiet desperation as achingly as does Brief Encounter. Coward wisely does not make the choices simple for the characters or the audience. Laura’s husband is gentle and devoted and her children loveable. Alec’s family is never seen, but the audience imagines something similar regarding his own responsibilities and constraints. Alec and Laura are drawn to each other not because they are fleeing violence, hatred or some other overt misery. Rather, they are running from dullness towards passion, which is underscored (pun intended) by perfectly chosen music by Rachmaninoff.

Lean and his frequent collaborators Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan understood the possibilities of film as well as any team in the history of cinema (Not incidentally, they went on to make many classics together post-Coward, including another of my recommendations, Great Expectations). This movie is one of their many triumphs. The tone, look, pacing and editing are all unimpeachable.

The other undeniable virtue of Brief Encounter is the acting. Trevor Howard, as Alec, is strong, but Celia Johnson tour de force as Laura, the more fully developed of the two characters, will stay with you until the end of your days. She might have been an unsympathetic character but Johnson’s evident humanity and emotional turmoil will elicit forgiveness from even judgmentally-inclined viewers. Johnson’s most unforgettable moment: Her character’s realization that her husband loves and trusts her so much that he will never suspect the lies she tells to cover up meeting with Alec. Johnson deservedly received a 1947 Oscar nomination for her performance. It came that long after the 1945 British release because a movie in which infidelity is not punished was long considered too scandalous to release in a number of countries, including the U.S.

Every moment, every look and every gesture rings true in Brief Encounter. Pour yourself a cup of tea, get out your hanky and watch this truly magnificent film made by a creatively matchless group of artists.

Categories
British Comedy Romance

Pygmalion

It’s a fun bit of trivia that George Bernard Shaw is the only person to have won a Nobel Prize for Literature and an Academy Award. He secured the latter for a truly brilliant adaptation of his own stage play: 1938’s Pygmalion.

The plot: Eliza Doolittle is a poor Covent Garden flower girl (Wendy Hiller) with a lower-class accent thicker than a London fog. She is taken on as an experimental subject by imperious, brilliant and eccentric language expert Professor Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard), who intends to pass off this “squashed cabbage leaf” and “incarnate insult to the English language” as a fine, upper class lady. Higgins doesn’t do this out of kindness, but because he wants to show off his abilities as a language and etiquette coach and along the way to win a bet with his friend Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland, in a warm portrayal of upper-class decency). The result is abject hilarity underlain by Shaw’s caustic observations on social class hierarchies. There is also, infamously, a strange romance which resolves in a fashion that is still much debated.

There is so much to praise in this movie! Shaw’s peerless source material is only the beginning of the joy for audiences. Co-Directors Leslie Howard and Anthony Asquith give a clinic in how to open up a play with the possibilities of film. Howard is also an antic marvel on screen, consistently watchable and funny without making Higgins more sympathetic than he should be.

But as good as Howard is, and he’s very good, the then-unknown Wendy Hiller is a revelation. She had garnered raves for her Eliza on stage and it’s easy to see why. She wrings all the laughs out of the part but also portrays heart-touching vulnerability and fiery spirit. She later won an acting Oscar for Separate Tables but this is her performance of a lifetime and ranks with the best 20th century turns by a British film actress.

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This is also a good-looking film, especially if you treat yourself to the restored Criterion Collection version. Cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr. had a fine eye for London life from its poshest to grimiest bits, and he was aided by a soon-to-be famous film editor named David Lean.

Pygmalion is near-perfect cinematic entertainment that remains tremendously appealing today. And though it doesn’t sound or look as good as The Criterion Collection version, you can watch a not bad copy of this public domain film for free at The Internet Archive.

SPOLIER ALERT: Stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film.

Categories
British Drama

Great Expectations

The great director Sir David Lean is remembered mainly for lushly coloured 70mm epics with big international casts, sweeping stories and long running times (e.g., Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India, Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Zhivago). But he had a fine career before those triumphs during which he made tightly constructed black and white films with British casts, stories and locations. These early Lean films include two excellent Dickens’ adaptations, one of which is the 1946 version of Great Expectations.

The origins of Lean’s adaptation of the oft-filmed novel are visible in another film I recommend: In Which We Serve. Lean was an accomplished film editor when he got a chance to break into directing alongside Noël Coward on that movie. The cinematographer Ronald Neame is the producer of Great Expectations (and likely an influence on Guy Green’s trendsetting camera work). Bernard Miles and John Mills are back as actors, again adroitly playing off each other with emotional impact. Kay Walsh goes from acting to collaborating with Lean on the screenplay (along with Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Cecil McGivern), a masterpiece of economy which relates Dickens’ 500-page novel in just 118 minutes. Walsh went on to star in Lean’s excellent Oliver Twist and in private life to become the second in his series of six wives (imagine the alimony payments!). Alec Guinness was not in In Which We Serve, but Great Expectations, his first sizable film role, began his long-running cinematic partnership with Lean. All of this demonstrates what a small community British film was in its glorious period after the war, and the even smaller nature of the network Lean constructed around his own projects.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

In Which We Serve

Pour yourself a small gin or a nice cup a tea, stiffen your upper lip, turn off the wireless (radio, that is) and watch one of the best films ever released in a time of war: 1942’s In Which We Serve. Made almost single-handed by Noël Coward (with some directorial assistance from the legendary David Lean), this is an unabashedly patriotic tribute to the Royal Navy, told as “the story of a ship”, the HMS Torrin. The primary purpose of the film is to encourage a nation facing annihilation, and it clearly succeeds in that respect. But it’s also — even today — moving, exciting and worthy of admiration as a piece of cinema.

The story telling style is reminiscent of Coward’s magnificent Cavalcade. Rather than following a strictly linear narrative, the film instead presents a series of recollections by different characters, all of whom are literally clinging to life after their ship has been torpedoed. In flashback scenes, they recall their families, their friends, and most of all their experiences on the H.M.S. Torrin. It’s stirring stuff. The Dunkirk rescue operation and the battles near Crete are brought vividly to life, using a well-edited mix of documentary footage and scenes shot for the film.

Noël Coward’s Mountbatten-esque performance (the two remarkable men were good friends) as Captain Kinross is probably a bit too mannered to be completely accessible to most viewers. The heart of the film is much more Bernard Miles as CPO Hardy and John Mills as his nephew by marriage, ordinary seaman Blake (Following this movie, Mills became a David Lean favorite, and won a best supporting actor Oscar under Lean’s Direction almost 30 years later). They and the other perfomers playing junior officers, ordinary seaman and family members back home are more vulnerable and therefore particularly sympathetic for the audience. We admire the formidable Kinross from an emotional distance but the “average” fighting men and their loved ones on the home front have more common humanity, particularly as we witness their courage, their fears and their loves.

In Which We Serve (1942) | From The Dam Busters to Dunkirk: the 31 ...

The film does not skimp on the horrors of war, including the terror of combat and the grief at losing loved ones. If you can’t shed a tear during the scene in which Blake tells CPO Hardy the latest news from home, call a cardiologist immediately because you are missing a vital organ from your chest.

The Brits and indeed the world were up against it when this film was made, so don’t expect cynicism, unhappy families or emotional breakdown by the characters (Even Richard Attenborough, as a coward, mans up in the end). A more realistic take on the war was possible after it was all over and people had the security to look back with a more gelid eye (see for example my recommendation of 1953’s The Cruel Sea). But none of that takes away from the power of this straight-faced tonic for the people of Britain at a time of unimaginable peril. It’s a triumph for Coward and the whole cast, who received a special and much deserved Academy Award for their efforts.

In Which We Serve is in the public domain and you can watch a high-quality copy for free by clicking here.