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Brief Encounter (1974)
NOTE: This review is of a Region 2, PAL-formatted DVD. Please be sure you have the equipment to play this disc before seeking it out for purchase.
Though I had seen David Lean's 1945 drama Brief Encounter, based on the play Still Life by Noel Coward, multiple times, I was not aware that there had been any other film versions of it. So, when I was offered the opportunity to review this 1974 television version, I was intrigued.
This updated Brief Encounter is set in contemporary times rather than during World War II, but the basic story is otherwise much the same. Directed by Alan Bridges (The Shooting Party) and written by John Bowen, both television veterans, it replaces Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson with Richard Burton and Sophia Loren. The two actors prove a surprisingly suitable couple and more than capable of the complex emotions that are so essential to the story. I'll dare say that the best compliment I can pay them both is that I completely forgot about Howard and Johnson not long after the film started. Without much force, both performers made Brief Encounter their own.
The pair play a couple of wayward souls who, though married to other people, find love after accidentally meeting at a train station. Burton is Dr. Alec Harvey, and Loren is housewife Anna Jesson. Both travel into the city once a week, coming from suburbs in opposite directions, he to visit the hospital there and she as a social work volunteer. When a passing train kicks up dirt and a bit of it lands in Anna's eye, Alec comes to her rescue, wiping it away. This interaction only lasts a moment, but when they see each other again, they recognize one another and strike up a conversation. Soon, they are meeting each week and growing more and more intimate, until finally Alec confesses his love and exposes Anna's feelings along with his own.
If Brief Encounter were a film about meaningless, carnal infidelity, these admissions would be all that would be required for Alec and Anna to toss of their clothes and climb between the sheets. We've certainly seen it happen in films before, probably in more movies than we can even count. What Coward, and thus Bowen and Bridges after him, is concerned with are two moral people who don't see any romantic coupling as a situation to be entered into lightly. Both Alec and Anna are in marriages that have begun to fizzle, with his ennui being far more pronounced than hers, but neither has officially ended. In fact, one could surmise that Anna hasn't really considered cheating until this situation arose. She and her husband (Jack Hedley) have an average life with two kids and a nanny, and he doesn't seem like that bad of a guy. Reading between the lines, his greatest fault appears that he is inattentive and maybe doesn't take Anna as seriously as he could. Anna's conflict is between what is perfectly acceptable and a passion that could be far more risky.
This version of Brief Encounter spends a lot more time on Anna's home life than the 1940s version did, and I think it ends up being the movie's one major flaw. I felt like we got far less time between Alec and Anna, and of that time, a lot less of it is focused on the possibilities in front of them or all that lays behind them; their "dates" come off as meandering rather than purposeful. In both versions, their get-togethers are understated and bittersweet, but there is not really much hint of joy in this version. Richard Burton is marvelous as Alec, but he is far more downtrodden, far more serious, than Trevor Howard was. Granted, the scenes of happiness weren't that pronounced in Lean's adaptation, but at least Alec took Anna to the movies and not to a religious pageant. Still, if you have only seen Richard Burton playing a blowhard, you really should do yourself a favor and check him out in this far more nuanced performance.
Another reason for there seeming to be less time for the affair here is the one major addition to the 1974 adaptation: Anna's work. There is a whole new subplot that involves a jilted woman (Rosemary Leach) who comes to Anna for help after her husband has gone missing. Anna's concern for this woman serves as a counterpoint to what she is considering. The woman provides an example of what could happen to Mr. Jesson were Anna to run away with Alec. Honestly, it's a little too on the nose, and it adds an obvious moralism to the story that undercuts the interior debate that Anna must wrestle with. The script leans too heavily toward pushing her away from Alec, when for the movie to have the proper effect, we have to believe going with him is a viable option. Like Burton, Loren is wonderful in this sad, understated role, and she doesn't need the added help this new plot device attempts to provide her.
Thankfully, this other woman disappears midway through the movie, and we can get back to what is best about Brief Encounter: the quietly charged exchanges. Alan Bridges gets the claustrophobia of the clandestine meetings just right, so much so that even when the couple appears out in the open, they still seem confined. He also achieves a remarkable pathos in the final scenes. Anna's return to the train platform has an incredible impact, with Sophia Loren communicating all of the conflicting emotions Anna must be feeling through the changing expressions on her face. As the train rushes in, is she contemplating suicide? Hoping to repeat the initial happenstance that blew that dirt into her eye? Or is she watching her last hope rush out? The scene that follows--and that closes the film--also contains the right amount of gravitas, showing that her choice, right or wrong, is not a cure-all, that her heart is just as heavy. It's not relieved, but only more resigned.
I should briefly note that the copy of Brief Encounter I received was created for review purposes, and I cannot properly gauge how accurately this reflects the final product. I can at least assume, however, that the retail version will at least be as good, if not better, as this version.
The full-frame image on the Brief Encounter DVD is actually quite solid for a 1970s television program. Though the resolution appears a little soft from time to time, the muted colors and the grain of the film stock look fairly good, and there is very little by way of print damage.
The basic mix of the English soundtrack is okay. It does suffer from an overall metallic tone that causes distortion at times, creating a bit of fuzz in the speakers that can make some of the dialogue a little hard to understand. Overall, it's decent, but not great.
The only extra on the disc is a gallery of stills, which is set up as a video slideshow that runs just over two minutes.
Though this 1974 BBC adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter is not as good as David Lean's original, it is a credible enough effort to stand just fine on its own. Richard Burton and Sophia Loren take over the lead roles, and they are both fantastic as the pair of would-be lovers who would give in to their passion if only they weren't already married to other people. Since this is basically a two-man show, they end up making Brief Encounter work despite some unnecessary additions to the script. Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
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