Brief Disapointment (Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter)

We have tickets to see Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter”, which is coming to Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre.  In order to better appreciate this touring production, we decided to rent a DVD of David Lean’s 1945 film, “Brief Encounter”, which earned actress Celia Johnson an Academy Award nomination.  (Never heard of Dame Celia Johnson?  Me, neither, although she was apparently a very well known English theater actress, the daughter of King George VI’s doctor and the wife of Ian Fleming’s older brother.)

The film has an 81% positive rating on IMDb, and an 88% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  Must be great, right?

Well, I must say that I did not enjoy the film at all.

Celia Johnson is Laura, a comfortable middle class English housewife, with a quiet, very English husband with a thin mustache and a young son and daughter.  Every Thursday she takes the train to a nearby town to shop, have lunch, and see a film.  Having the  misfortune of getting something in her eye at the railway station tea room, a  (married with three children) physician Alec (Trevor Howard) introduces himself and removes it.  He lives in still another village, but every Thursday comes to the same town as Johnson to work at the local hospital.  They fall madly in love (what the attraction is, I couldn’t tell, as neither of them seems to have much to say, Trevor Howard is not very appealing, and even Celia Johnson seems fairly ordinary), meet on several subsequent Thursdays, when they have lunch, take rides in the country and see films.  One day, they go to Howard’s doctor friend’s flat where their affair is likely to reach a new level, but just as things get exciting the owner of the flat comes home, and Johnson disappears down the back stairway.  (The film starts with the proud logo of the British film censor board.) They torment themselves and each other, but (out of the blue) Howard tells Johnson he has accepted a job in Johannesburg and is leaving England the next week, and they go back to their regularly scheduled lives.

The screenplay was written by Coward, and the director David Lean (whom I know only from “Lawrence of Arabia”, another “great” film that I didn’t care for). Interestingly, the movie is not a film adaptation of a “Brief Encounter” play, but an extrapolation from a one act 1936  Noel Coward play, “Still Life”.  Maybe, I would have liked the original play better.

The black and white cinematography is excellent – especially the scenes where the trains screech by (sort of like the photos of Winston Link, if you know them).  The music is all Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, which I found very irritating because this familiar concerto is broken up, a theme here, and theme there, backwards and forwards, and making little sense.  Just when you start enjoying the music, it vanishes, only to pick up again ten minutes later.  I also had a hard time figuring out when the story was taking place.  Britain in 1945 (when the film was made) was a very different place than Britain of 1936 (when “Still Life” was written) – I have to assume that the film was timed for something closer to 1936 – there certainly was no sign of a war going on (which, by the way, surprised me – the making of a film like this during a time of such hardship, with no hint of any war time disruption, but perhaps this is the ways films were then being  made).

So what is the Kneehigh Theatre version of “Brief Encounter” going to be like?  It’s obviously not “Still Life” and it’s obviously not the film.  I looked at the website of New York’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, where the production was recently staged, and see the following:

“Kneehigh’s artistic director Emma Rice has returned to Coward’s original play [“Still Life”] to rediscover elements that were discarded from the legendary film script……Switching seamlessly between live theater and remade film footage, “Brief Encounter” takes audiences back to a bygone age of romance and the silver screen.  The production careens around varying moods of clipped, clenched passion heaving under the middle-class restraint of the duty-bound Alec and Laura, and the wild music hall exuberance of the slap and tickle highjinks of two other clandestine couples among the railway station staff.  The lives and loves of the three couples are played out in the train station tea room as a grand entertainment, using the words (some newly set to original music) and familiar songs of Noel Coward to create a breathtaking, funny and tear-inducing show with live musicians on stage, characters jumping in and out of film screens, and a couple in love floating in mid-air.”

This is certainly an enticing description, and a promise that Kneehigh’s “Brief Encounter” will be quite different from the film.  I look forward to the show.


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