In honor of Valentine's Day, our staff will be sharing some of their favorite romantic scenes all day long.
The world is filled with quirky, happy romances in which mismatched couples end up together in the final reel, looking forward to their lives together, happily ever after. Call me glass-half-empty, but there's a much more rare, more poignant, more perfect kind of romance, and it's the one in which great love can never happen, in which the lovers must somehow part, rather than join together. And because their love remains a theory, untested, rather than a reality, it lingers in the imagination, all dreams and clouds and floating hearts. Think of the final moments in City Lights, Before Sunrise, The Bridges of Madison County or Lost in Translation. These movies only come along every so often, but the king of them all is David Lean's Brief Encounter.
In certain circles, the movie is a classic, viewed again and again, perhaps even annually. Actors like Kenneth Branagh and James McAvoy have quoted it to me. But I fear that it is not as well known as it should be; in this country, British director David Lean is better recognized for his giant-sized, Oscar-winning epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia; yet there was a period in which he was doing dazzling things with small scale pictures, rich black-and-white cinematography, and material from great writers. Brief Encounter came from a 1936 play by Noel Coward, who also co-wrote the screenplay. The movie is only 86 minutes long, and it contains moments of startling photographic beauty, such as when the illicit lovers first kiss under a covered walkway. But the heart of the movie comes from Celia Johnson's eyes.
Johnson plays a pretty, slightly mousy housewife who spends her Thursdays in the city, shopping, lunching and watching movies. She meets a kind doctor (Trevor Howard) -- who is also married -- and they spend a wonderful day together. They start to meet every Thursday and soon find that they have fallen deeply, irrevocably in love. It's just that simple. But Coward and Lean cleverly -- and devastatingly -- begin and end the movie with the couple's last moments together. At the beginning we don't quite understand the reality of the moment, but in this last scene, the magnitude of the situation becomes clear. A gossipy acquaintance shows up, which would normally be an annoyance, but here it has been raised to the level of great tragedy. (Note: if you haven't seen the film, do yourself a favor and check out the whole thing before watching this last scene.)