Parting has never been such sweet sorrow

Laura and Alec share a restrained goodbye in 'Brief Encounter'.
Laura and Alec share a restrained goodbye in 'Brief Encounter'.

If the expression “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” is true, then ‘Brief Encounter’ must be one of the most flattered films ever.

A very English romance, the 1945 film has been the target of countless but affectionate parodies and it’s no coincidence that it usually rates highly in polls of romantic movies.

Its repressed, unrealised but still simmering passion has been much-mocked but more effective in underlining its ill-fated love story than anything more physical would have been, and its tragedy centres on the constraints of the social mores of the day.

Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a suburban housewife in a dull but affectionate marriage, is returning from a shopping excursion and while waiting in the railway station is helped by another passenger to remove a piece of grit from her eye. The passenger is Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), an idealistic doctor who works one day a week as a consultant at the local hospital.

Both are married with two children but, enjoying each other’s company, they arrange to meet again but are troubled to find their innocent and casual relationship quickly developing into love.

Their furtive meetings lead them eventually to the inescapable conclusion that a future together is impossible and they agree to part, Alec accepting the offer of a job in Johannesburg.

The film’s famous scenes set in and around the railway station have become iconic, and there are few more heart-wrenching partings than that of Laura and Alec when they meet there for the last time.

It’s a near-perfect viewing experience, with a script adapted by Noël Coward from his own play, ‘Still Life’, and masterful direction from David Lean, while the performances from Johnson and Howard are almost unbearable to watch as they struggle with the conflict between their emotions and responsibilities. Parting has never been such sweet sorrow, a true classic.