In David Lean’s film, Brief Encounter, the characters played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard meet by chance at a commuter rail station and begin an affair. During a few clandestine meetings, first on a trip to the countryside and then during a champagne lunch, they declare their love for each other. They rendezvous at a borrowed apartment but then, before they can consummate their love, the owner of the apartment returns unexpectedly. They make an awkward exit and both are left feeling guilty and ashamed. Because of their high self-expectations and the responsibilities they feel towards their spouses and children, they agree that there can’t be a future for them and they talk of ending the affair. This must be their last meeting but Howard is adamant that they meet again one last time. He then adds a curious line. “We can’t do such violence to our hearts and minds.”
The audience knows and feels what he means. And Celia Johnson does too because she immediately agrees to meet again next week for the last time. It’s Howard’s use of the word “violence” that startles. It’s as if he’s saying that it won’t be only the emotional damage that they’ll suffer by ending the affair so abruptly but actual physical harm too. The implication is that if they have a week to get ready, some time to prepare, then it might result in less damage. That maybe by then, all that will be left is the emotional pain which can be hidden and controlled with a stiff upper lip. Of course, neither of them was thinking any of this when they agreed to a last meeting. They just wanted to see each other again one more time.
Howard, in his profession as a doctor, seems to be extremely competent as he’s been offered the directorship of a new hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. With the experience that this implies, it’s assumed that he has seen firsthand the physical damage that severe emotional distress can cause a person, and how, in some cases, it can destroy a patient’s will to live. Not only has he seen it up close but he seems to be the empathetic type who would understand it viscerally. There is something of this desperation in his plea to Celia to not inflict such violence upon themselves. That they should, at least, try to lessen the damage. A fear for his own well-being and hers too leaps off the screen in that line. The stakes are high. A duty to their homes and families means nothing if they can’t go on with their lives afterwards. They need this time during the next week to figure it out. But can they accomplish such a seemingly impossible task?
The film has intermittent voice-overs by Celia’s character in which she begins various scenes by describing where they took place and the feelings that she had going into them. She speaks in hindsight as if to someone hearing it for the first time. To whom we don’t yet know and we won’t find out until the end of the movie but that line by Howard conjures up some guesses. Is she talking to a friend or a therapist? To her diary? To the police maybe? Or could these be the thoughts of her ghostly self during the last moments of her life as she plunges to the bottom of a river, sucking black water into her lungs?
Both characters seem prudish in a mid-twentieth century way. Adultery during that time wasn’t something that self-respecting people engaged in. But then, they aren’t much different than people from any time and place who find themselves in an illicit affair while trying to maintain their ideas about morality, loyalty and responsibility. And their vision of another possibility for their lives isn’t specific to that time and place either. Like everyone since the world began, they too have wondered about that special, other person whom they’ve somehow missed along the way and what their lives would have been like alongside them. And that doesn’t even take into account the secret, sexual fantasies that shake them from their sleep at four in the morning.
The film was made in 1945 just as World War II was ending. After six years of global carnage in which over 50 million people died, an audience suddenly found itself confronted by the personal decisions of two ordinary people who until only a few days earlier had led small, uneventful lives in a country village. The Guns of Navarone had given way to the desperate need for these two people to get the decision right.
When they agree to meet again for the last time, the audience knows that they’re just putting it off for a little longer. But then, there’s still the slight possibility that they’re giving themselves time to rethink their decision and take that drastic step, to end their former lives and follow that other voice to the ends of the earth and even over the edge of it if that’s what it takes. And if they do, can anyone blame them? Of course, they’ll have to pay the price for abnegating their duty to themselves and their families. And it’s certain by that point in the film that if these two people do follow their dreams into an uncertain future, they’ll pay for it double or triple for the rest of their lives and understand in minute detail why it cost them so much.
Howard could’ve said other things. Something along the lines of, “Let’s give it another week before we decide.” Or, “I know that it all seems hopeless now but we may wake up tomorrow and feel differently.” Or even, “Won’t you consider going to Africa with me where we can start our lives anew?” Well, maybe not those exact lines but you get the idea. Instead, he says, “We can’t do such violence to our hearts and minds.” It’s no wonder that Celia agrees with him. Don’t end it now. Not like this. Nothing good can come of it. Take just one more sip of that pure, sweet, nectar that you’ve always known existed and that you’ve finally been given a taste of.
In the end, they do go their separate ways. For the film’s final scene, Celia is at home, sitting in her armchair across from her husband. At first, we think that it’s to him she’s been narrating the story but then it’s not so clear whether she’s told him or not. There’s a chance that the events of the past few weeks have only been running through her mind as she stares off into the middle distance and her husband studies her with concern. But then he crosses, kneels next to her and says very gently, “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.”
As they embrace, it’s clear that she’s accepted the violence that she’s done to herself and the suffering she’ll have to endure. You hope that it won’t be too harsh for her and that the pain will lessen as that odd episode from her past fades from memory, leaving behind in its place only a few mysterious artifacts. But it’s also clear that she’ll never again have to decide which of her inner voices to follow. That voice which led her into the affair to begin with, has been silenced; that one which spoke of unlimited possibilities with all its hopes and dreams and magic is now gone forever, never to return. And that is the true violence and lasting damage which they’ve done to themselves. It might, in the end, be the most vicious horror of them all. And maybe that’s what Howard was trying to say.
Early in the film during one of Celia’s voice-overs she says, “I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people,” using a variation of that same word that Howard had used. But her use of it is an echo of Howard’s because Celia’s narration, remember, is given in hindsight. The audience, too, finds out in hindsight about the word’s larger ramifications, which heightens its effect as it reverberates and echoes, lodging itself in mind and memory.
The suffering which lies ahead for both had been foretold. In fact, you could say that that one line contains the whole story of Brief Encounter. The movie, written by Noël Coward, directed by David Lean and performed by these wonderful actors, is almost perfect. Comic scenes with amazing characters appear out of nowhere and then are gone just as fast. You can smell their damp, woolen clothes, musky talcs and day-old aftershave. Not once but twice, a single piece of trash flutters aimlessly down a dark, deserted street. The film is a true classic in every sense but I’m still brought back to that one line.
As with other lines that have been written and embody so much more than the sum of their parts, this one by Coward contains vast worlds within it.
Harvey Huddleston is a playwright living in New York City. He received a BA from the University of Memphis and a Masters in Playwriting at Columbia University. His play, Natural Phenomena, won three national awards and his short fiction has been published in Otoliths and Literary Yard.