Noel Coward’s one-act play Still Life (itself part of his Tonight at 8:30 series) tells a riveting story of the extra-marital affair of Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey. Set over the course of a year within the confines of a train station café, we see the couple meet with him helping clean dirt out of her eye, then as the seasons change, they bond over coffee and biscuits. It finally blossoms beautifully until it tragically dissipates. The play gently reveals itself to be a truly romantic epic without ever showing what goes on outside the café. It is tender, funny, and realist play that is like gazing into a window of a specific moment in time. So, what happens when Noel Coward—with the help of an up-and-coming director named David Lean—decides to create a film adaptation that takes the story outside of the café? To be frank, it led to a perfect storm of brilliant romantic storytelling. Brief Encounter was the last hurrah of one of the great cinematic partnerships, the final of four adaptations with Coward and Lean adapting the former’s plays to the screen. At this point, Lean not only found his voice as a director, he practically sings with the camera and cuts. Coward pushed as far as he could go, with a script that defies many modern filmmaking sensibilities, yet it still moves the heart in a way that is completely disarming. Even though it contains a fraction of the original Still Life, not only does Brief Encounter maintain the spirit of the play, it transcends it beautifully.
It is rare for a theater to revive Still Life these days (in fact, outside of the actual text, the only recorded version of the play I could find is a YouTube rip of a Joan Collins’ TV special) and this may be deliberate. The play, along with the rest of the Tonight at 8:30 series, was a writing and acting showcase for Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, which became popular in the 1930s. This inexplicable success made it perfect for an adaptation. The story was proven to have public appeal and its short length gave plenty of room for Coward to expand upon. Almost too much room. To compare Still Life to Brief Encounter is like comparing apples to apple pie. Vital elements like the café are still there but so much has been added and morphed in adapting it to film that it is essentially a new thing. Elements that are implicit or discussed in the play, like the trains, the trips to the movies, and the secret intimate moments are made explicit as the 1940s film industry could allow.
The structure of the plot is utterly bizarre as well. The film begins where the play ends, with the tragic lovers parting ways one last time. The camera then follows Laura Jesson into a train with a friend, and then the story makes its most drastic departure, her thoughts narrate the film. She narrates not just the entire story, but every moment and feeling she felt during the whole affair. The narration in Brief Encounter is one of the most bewildering things ever caught on film, it breaks every modern idea of what it means to tastefully narrate a film (i.e. don’t do it, but if you must don’t describe things the audience can clearly see) but it works contextually and poetically. It evolves Laura Jesson from a closed-off archetype of British apprehension into a deeply psychological character trying to comprehend her predicament. At the beginning when she narrates “there'll come a time in the future when I shan't mind about this anymore… No, no, I don't want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.” This is not a moment of sentiment; it is an outright declaration of cherishing love. She will remember every single moment of time because that is all that is left. It also helps that actress Celia Johnson is a brilliant actress, she not only speaks with the natural gravitas of a great oral storyteller but the combination of her voice and her subtle romantic expressions to create a beautiful display of empathy. This is a performance that should be studied in films schools, not just because of Johnson's greatness, but because the technique it required could only be achieved on film. Ultimately the narration represented the filmmakers drawing a line between the play and the adaptation. No longer a distant window into a somber situation, but a disquieting, intimate, and cinematic portrait of lost love.
Speaking of the cinematic; David Lean, that heartbreaking bastard. How does he make a camera movement speak volumes and make it look so easy? How?! Lean is often appraised for his sweeping epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and there are moments in Brief Encounter that hint at these ambitions. However, his greatest strengths come when his camera is up close and focusing on the personal nuances of his characters. Very few classic Hollywood directors could hold on a small delicate moment and give it grandeur as elegantly as Lean. In a particularly early scene in the café, the couple is talking about his job and at a certain point Laura says, “you look so much younger,” he asks why but she does not answer. Then, as he continues talking, the camera moves closer, slowly towards her face as she intently focuses on him. As if the camera is as mesmerized as she is for him. The scene is taken almost verbatim from Still Life, yet the play only has the dialogue and an action line referring to Laura as “hypnotized” to hint at her psyche. With a subtle camera move toward her face, Lean provides clarity into Laura’s point of view, delicately revealing the romantic tension, and makes the audience feel every single emotion she goes through in that moment. It is one of many profound examples of how the camera elevates the text.
Adaptations require a balance of faithfulness and liberation that is indescribably hard to manage, even for people adapting their own work, yet Noel Coward and David Lean found that balance in creating Brief Encounter. They took Still Life, this sublimely internal one-act play, and turned it inside out and stretched it into the epic romance that could only be hinted at on the stage. Things are lost in translation, the café staff is reduced to being clowns, but this is ultimately superfluous because the tension between Laura and Alec is the universal core of it all. Their story could be set in Manhattan, Rome, or Hong Kong and it would still be poignant. The fact that Coward and Lean use the best of their abilities to empathically explore the meaning of that core is what makes Brief Encounter the definitive romantic film.
This is part of the Broadway Bound Blogathon, check out Taking Up Room for more films about Broadway, or other stage-plays adapted to the screen!