Not quite yet: Brief Encounter (1945)

You tell yourself: “This was the last time, I swear”. All of us have at one point in our lives done something forbidden or something frowned upon. One can easily imagine continuing doing something wrong, even though you know it cannot turn out well, and yet you cannot help it. Brief Encounter (1945) is a romantic movie about an impossible love, but, more importantly, it’s an illustration of the human desire to cherish small moments of happiness even though they will eventually bring upon only immense sadness.

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.

Using a railway station throughout the film, Lean invokes the feeling of haste and tension.

From an evolutionary standpoint, and foreshadowed by Hume’s moral philosophy, people tend to enjoy the immediate gain without thinking about long-term consequences. Most people would rather be granted a million dollars now, rather than wait for ten years to get ten million dollars. But immediate gain is a long-term loss, and that’s exactly what our characters know. Laura Jesson, a married housewife, meets Alec Harvey, a married doctor at a café on a railway station. Every week they meet, first by chance, then deliberately, and gradually fall in love with each other. Every savored moment feels so good, holding hands, walking beside the lake, confessing the deepest feelings to each other. Yet, every second, a gloomy shadow of reality creeps slowly and tries to make its way. And both Laura and Alec know that this is something that cannot end well. But immediate gain feels so good, and it’s easy to get addicted to love. After all, both love and serious drugs elevate your serotonin levels, leaving you to behave irrationally and seeking instantaneous fulfillment.

Feelings of not having enough time, signifying the shortness of their time together, are often accentuated by various clocks. In many scenes, some remnants of expressionist lighting raise the tension as well.

When you notice that this film was directed by David Lean, you know it won’t be your regular romantic film. Lean picks his source material meticulously and carefully, in order to adapt it to something even more amazing. Based on a Noël Coward one-act play Still Life, Lean managed to turn a linear story into circular tension. The film opens with its ending, but we are not aware at that very moment that this is their final goodbye. Told as a recollection, we slowly get under the skin of our characters and feel the same pain, the same feelings of doubt and reminisce about the same forbidden things we had done in our lives. And when we get back to the very first moment, we feel a regular cup of tea seems like the most awful and yet amazing thing in the world. Russian formalists developed a concept of defamiliarization (ostranenie, остранение) as a way of presenting common things in an unfamiliar or strange way, enabling them to see the world in a different way. As Anaïs Nin had stated, a writer can shake up a familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it. Now, when the first scene is the last scene in a movie, everything that was so common and so transient, now seems special and eternal. And that’s the magic of David Lean.

A circular composition of the film enables us to see the first scene in a different and deeper way.

This film tells the story of different times, where, for example, the status of a divorced woman would have been scandalous. But it’s not just a story about love, it’s a story about our simultaneous inner desire and fear to try out something new, whether it’s a mate, a career, or any other choice. This brings to mind the psychological issue of the so-called approach-avoidance conflict, where we experience the tension resulting from the simultaneous attraction to and repulsion by the same goal. Laura wants to tell her husband about her affair and get inner peace, but she cannot do it. According to Silver, Lean directs it perfectly, shifting from the over-the-shoulder view to wide angle lens, making her husband farther away than he actually is, illustrating her state of mind.

Lean shifts to wide angle lens to illustrate how distanced from her husband Laura is.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 can be heard throughout the film as a certain leitmotif. But I’m sure this is not by chance. Compounded by personal issues, Sergei Rachmaninoff fell into a long-lasting depression, and this concerto was a symbol of his recovery from both depression and writer’s block. Both Laura and Alec lead seemingly dull and empty lives, and this brief encounter is what made them alive again, signified by the same music that lifted up the spirit of a famous composer. It’s a film that does the same and that can make one want it to never end. Or at least not quite yet.



  • Nin, Anaïs (1976). The Novel of the Future. New York: Collier Books.
  • Lewin, Kurt (1935). A Dynamic Theory of Personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Silver, Alain (2004): Lean, David. Senses of Cinema.

One thought on “Not quite yet: Brief Encounter (1945)

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  1. Black and white films of the golden era of the film production world particularly Holiwood are to be remembered, acclaimed for centuries.The film’s cannot be compared with the present day Computer aided films.Old films are Classics and are meant for teaching the present day film producers about the natural beauty of film production in all respects.Thanks


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