‘Brief Encounter’

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the movie classic, Brief Encounter. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the movie classic, Brief Encounter. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Published July 18, 2016

What movies do you enjoy and why? My partner Marlene and I watch a lot of first-run films; but recently we’ve viewed some of the classics.

We consider this entertainment, but the teacher in me is always looking for human interest and wisdom to be gained. Here are my thoughts after a recent viewing of the 1946 English romance, Brief Encounter.

A key discovery? Human nature is unchanging, and our highest values, like fidelity in marriage, take work. Today, however, we seem to have moved from personal and societal certitudes to situational struggles and unclear grounding.

In this 70 year-old classic, much-feted director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter) created a splendid adaptation of Noel Coward’s play, Still Life (1936), with great acting by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard.

Laura, a conventional British suburbanite, is a married woman with children. Her mundane life becomes increasingly complicated after a chance meeting with Alec, a physician, at a greater-London railway station. He kindly removes a piece of grit from her eye. They share tea and return visits. One inadvertent meeting quickly evolves into a powerful love affair.

Matters become even more tangled when they are observed by acquaintances, and also when the couple visits a flat owned by Alec’s friend, who unexpectedly discovers them.

Frightened, Laura uses a back exit, feeling humiliated and ashamed. The lovers realize that a future together is impossible. Alec accepts a medical position in South Africa, and she is resigned to ending the relationship. We’re uncertain if it was ever consummated.

The experience, however, has affected them deeply. Their parting is heart-rending and a final goodbye is botched, leaving both of them distraught and unsatisfied. Laura sinks into a suicidal trauma, but blocks these impulses. She comes home to her husband, who, sensing her recent preoccupation, thanks her for returning.

Could a credible remake of this movie occur today? Certainly-infidelity remains problematic. But for today’s audience, the story details would need to be less discretely presented.

Women’s rights and freedoms have advanced considerably since the end of the Second World War. A feminist critique of this film may suggest that Laura and

Alec acted “ethically” more out of social convention and fear, based on the good social example expected of them. Women bear the brunt of any fallout, but that, I believe, is also changing.

Gay people today might say that they are now saddled and seek release from the oppression of social conformity that postwar women endured.

I think the biggest change has been in the locus of ethical decision-making. It has shifted from society to the individual. In retrospect, we might be critical of the way both Laura and Alec seemed more dissuaded by the public perception of their behaviour than how they personally felt about it.

Infidelity remains a timeless issue. Today’s understandings might differ; the moral crux of the matter has not. Human nature is unchanged. How we act upon it varies.

Our highest values are not shaped, applied or realized without considerable struggle and soul-searching. Brief Encounter helped me rediscover that.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

Keep on reading

Skip to content