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Brief Encounter is a 1945 British film directed by David Lean about the mores of British suburban life, centring on a housewife for whom real love (as opposed to the polite arrangement of her marriage) was an unexpectedly "violent" thing. The film stars Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. The screenplay is by Noël Coward, and is based on his 1936 one-act play Still Life. The soundtrack prominently features the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, played by Eileen Joyce.


Laura Jesson (Johnson), a suburban housewife, tells her story in the first person while at home with her husband, imagining that she is confessing her affair to him.

Laura ventures into the nearby town of Milford once a week for shopping and to the cinema for a matinée. Returning home from one of her weekly excursions, at the station she gets a piece of grit in her eye which is removed by another passenger, a doctor called Alec Harvey (Howard). Both are in their thirties; each is married, with two children. The doctor is a general practitioner who also works one day a week as a consultant at the local hospital, but his passion is for preventive medicine, such as addressing the causes of respiratory illness in miners.

Enjoying each other's company, the two arrange to meet again. They are soon troubled to find their innocent and casual relationship quickly developing into love.

For a while, they meet furtively, constantly fearing chance meetings with friends. After several meetings, they go to a room belonging to a friend (Valentine Dyall) of the doctor, but they are interrupted by the friend's unexpected return. This brings home the fact that a future together is impossible and, wishing not to hurt their families, they agree to part. Alex has been offered a job in Johannesburg, South Africamarker, where his brother lives.

Their final meeting is at the railway station refreshment room which we see for the second time with the poignant perspective of their story. As they await a sad and final parting, Dolly Messiter, a talkative friend of Laura, invites herself to join them and is soon chattering away, totally oblivious to the couple's inner misery.

As they realise that they have been robbed of the chance for a final goodbye, Alec's train arrives. With Dolly still chattering, Alec departs with a last look at Laura but without the passionate farewell for which they both long. After shaking Messiter's hand, he lightly squeezes Laura on the shoulder and leaves. Laura waits for a moment, anxiously hoping that Alec will walk back into the refreshment room; he does not. As the train is heard pulling away, Laura suddenly dashes out onto the platform. The lights of a passing express train flash across her face as she conquers her impulse to commit suicide; she then returns home to her family.

In the final scene of the film, which does not appear in the original Coward play, Laura's husband Fred suddenly shows that he has not been completely oblivious to her distress in the past weeks, and takes her in his arms.

Film within a film

Like the play, the film is set before World War II. The fictional film within a film that Laura and Alec see, Flames of Passion, displays a copyright date of 1938. When Laura returns home following the first (and last) scene, her daughter wishes to see a pantomime, suggesting a setting in time during the weeks after Christmas. That the season is winter is obvious during Alec and Laura's visit to the Botanical Garden. Also, by the time Laura catches her usual 5:43 train each Thursday, it's already dark.

Adaptation of Still Life

The film is based on Noël Coward's one-act play Still Life (1936), one of ten short plays in the cycle Tonight at 8:30, designed for Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself to be performed in various combinations as triple bills. All scenes of Still Life are set in the refreshment room of a railway station (the fictional Milford Junction).

As is normal in films based on stage plays, the film depicts places that are only referred to in the play: Dr. Lynn's flat, Laura's home, a cinema, a restaurant and a branch of Boots the Chemists. Additionally, a number of scenes have been added which are not in the play: a scene on a lake in a rowing boat where Dr. Harvey gets his feet wet; Laura wandering alone in the dark, sitting down on a park bench and smoking in public; a drive in the country in a borrowed car.

Some scenes are made less ambiguous and more dramatic in the film. The scene in which the two lovers are about to commit adultery is toned down: in the play it is left for the audience to decide whether they actually consummate their relationship. In the film, Laura has only just arrived at Dr. Lynn's flat when the owner returns, and is immediately led out by Dr. Harvey via the fire escape. Later, when Laura wants to throw herself in front of an express train, the film makes this intention clear by means of voice-over narration.

There are two editions of Coward's original screenplay for the film adaptation, both listed in the bibliography.

Adaptations of the film


The 2008 Kneehigh Theatre production was adapted for the stage by Emma Rice and is a mixture of the film and the stage play, with additional musical elements. It toured the UK before opening in February 2008 at the Haymarket Cinema in London, which was converted into a theatre for the play. The 2008 London cast included Amanda Lawrence and Tamzin Griffin, with Tristan Sturrock and Naomi Frederick in the lead roles. The production ran until November 2008 and then toured the UK for 27 weeks from February to July 2009 with venues including the Marlowe Theatremarker and the Richmond Theatremarker and with the two leads played by Hannah Yelland and Milo Twomey. The U.S. premiere at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, CA ran from September to October, 2009 [10895]. The adaptation is scheduled to perform in New York in December 2009 and Minneapolis in February - April 2010.


In May 2009, Houston Grand Opera premiered an opera in two acts based on Brief Encounter, with music by André Previn from a libretto by John Caird.


Jenny Seagrove and Nigel Havers rehearsing
Brief Encounter was adapted as a radio play on the November 20, 1946 episode of Academy Award Theater, starring Greer Garson. It was presented three times on The Screen Guild Theater, first on the May 12, 1947 episode with Herbert Marshall and Lilli Palmer, again on January 12, 1948 with Herbert Marshall and Irene Dunne and finally on January 11, 1951 with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. It was also adapted to Lux Radio Theater on the November 29, 1948 episode with Van Heflin and Greer Garson and on the May 14, 1951 episode with Olivia de Havilland and Richard Basehart.

On October 30 2009, as part of the celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the BBC's world famous Maida Vale Studiosmarker, Jenny Seagrove and Nigel Havers starred in a special Radio 2 production of Brief Encounter, performed live from Maida Vale's studio 6 (MV6). The script used was a 1947 adaptation for radio by Maurice Horspool, which had been in the BBC's ownership and had never been used or performed since then.


Much of the film version was shot at Carnforth railway stationmarker in Lancashiremarker, then a junction on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. As well as a busy station being necessary for the plot, it was located far enough away from major cities to avoid the blackout for film purposes, shooting taking place in early 1945 before the War had finished. Noël Coward makes the station announcements in the film. The station refreshment room was a studio recreation. Carnforth Station still retains many of the period features present at the time of filming and remains a place of pilgrimage for fans of the film. However, some of the urban scenes were shot in London or at Denham or Beaconsfield near Denham Studios where the film was made.


As well as Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 which recurs throughout the film, there is a scene in a tea room where a salon orchestra plays the Spanish Dance No 5 (Bolero) by Moritz Moszkowski.



The film shared the 1946 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festivalmarker. Celia Johnson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in the 1947 awards. In 1999 Brief Encounter came second in a British Film Institute poll of the top 100 British films. In 2004, the magazine Total Film named it the 44th greatest British film of all time. Derek Malcolm included the film in his 2000 column The Century of Films.


In her book Noël Coward (1987), Frances Gray says that Brief Encounter is, after the major comedies, the one work of Coward that almost everybody knows and has probably seen; it has featured frequently on television and its viewing figures are invariably high. Its story is that of an unconsummated affair between two married people [....] Coward is keeping his lovers in check because he cannot handle the energies of a less inhibited love in a setting shorn of the wit and exotic flavour of his best comedies [....] To look at the script, shorn of David Lean's beautiful camera work, deprived of an audience who would automatically approve of the final sacrifice, is to find oneself asking awkward questions. (p.64-67).

Gray acknowledges a common criticism of the play: why do the characters not consummate the affair? Gray argues that their problem is class consciousness: the working classes can act in a vulgar way, and the upper class can be silly; but the middle class is or at least considers itself the moral backbone of society — a notion whose validity Coward did not really want to question or jeopardise as the middle classes were Coward's principal audience.

However, Laura in her narration stresses that what holds her back is her horror at the thought of betraying her husband and her settled moral values, tempted though she is by the force of a love affair. Indeed, it is this very tension which has made the film such an enduring favourite.

The values which Laura precariously, but ultimately successfully, clings to were widely shared and respected (if not always observed) at the time of the film's original setting (the status of a divorced woman, for example, remained sufficiently scandalous in the UK to cause Edward VIII to abdicate in 1936). Updating the story left those values behind and with them vanished the credibility of the plot, which may be why the remake could not compete.

The film is widely admired for the beauty of its black and white photography and the atmosphere created by the steam-age railway setting, both of which were particular to the original David Lean version.

The film was a great success in the UK and such a hit in the U.S. that Celia Johnson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

The film was released amid the social and cultural context of the Second World War when 'brief encounters' were thought to be commonplace and women had far greater sexual and economic freedom than previously. In British National Cinema (1997), Sarah Street argues that "Brief Encounter thus articulated a range of feelings about infidelity which invited easy identification, whether it involved one's husband, lover, children or country" (p. 55). In this context, feminist critics read the film as an attempt at stabilising relationships to return to the status quo. Meanwhile, in his 1993 BFI book on the film, Richard Dyer notes that owing to the rise of homosexual law reform, gay men also viewed the plight of the characters as comparable to their own social constraint in the formation and maintenance of relationships. Sean O'Connor considers the film to be an "allegorical representation of forbidden love" informed by Noël Coward's experiences as a closeted homosexual (p. 157).

The British play and film, The History Boys features two of the main characters reciting a passage of the film. (The scene portrayed, with Posner playing Celia Johnson and Scripps as Cyril Raymond, is the closing minutes of the film where character Laura begins, "I really meant to do it.")

The Channel 4 British drama series Shameless has a plot based on Brief Encounter in its fifth series. Similarities include the main character, Frank Gallagher getting grit in his eye from a bus, being caught by a friend of his wife, and the tearful departure. Frank's wife, Monica even thanks Frank for coming back.

Brief Encounter also loosely inspired Mum's Army, an episode of the British comedy series Dad's Army. There is a similar final scene in a railway station.

A 1974 remake of the film starred Richard Burton and Sophia Loren, but was not well-received.




  • The Great British Films, pp 91–93, Jerry Vermilye, 1978, Citadel Press, ISBN 080650661X
  • Coward, Noël. Brief Encounter: Screenplay. London: Faber and Faber, 1999. ISBN 0-571-19680-2
  • Dyer, Richard. Brief Encounter. London: BFI, 1993. ISBN 0-85170-362-3
  • O'Connor, Sean. Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan. London: Cassell, 1998. ISBN 0304328669
  • Street, Sarah. British National Cinema. London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0-415-06736-7

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