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I suppose you could call this the Unfaithful of the 1940's ... except without all the sex, jealousy and death hovering over everyone.  This film is considered by many to be one of the defining moments of (romantic) cinematic history, although it was never really considered as such at the time of its release.

Brief Encounter

This movie was filmed just after World War II had ended and, according to the documentary included with the DVD, this was the turning point in which long-standing traditions of loyalty and decency would finally start succumbing to the desire for personal gratification rather than wanting to hold onto their sense of duty towards their spouses and family - although one could say that this sort of thing was happening ever since the concept of marriage.  However, one could also say that not everyone was always happily married back then (for reasons other than boredom or complacency).  But Brief Encounter portrays the more idyllic existence of one's initial contentment with their current lifestyle, only for it to be challenged by motivations based on nothing but pure love.

At the time Brief Encounter was released, it bravely confronted the notion about what an individual may desire for their own personal fulfillment as against their sense of guilt for feeling this way ... of course, the values held by everyone in society back then were more in favour of being the ever-faithful spouse and doting parent of one's children, and the pendulum has been swinging the other way ever since.  But then, in the ever-more complex world that we live in today, many more issues have been addressed regarding an individual's right to happiness, whereas it would have earlier been shunned by society as being either unimportant or even selfish from the requirements that one has vowed to uphold on their wedding day.  It's interesting to see a film like this as a veritable time-capsule of how days were spent by adults of this era (at least from the middle-class), where everything was formal including dress and manners as well as what passed as "entertainment" to these people.

Brief Encounter

So even though we now live in a world where we lack many of the sensibilities towards our society's ills, Brief Encounter still manages to provide a rather striking, if not clinical, view of the dilemmas faced by two individuals who, against their better judgement, pursue a course of love that is felt to be so innocent and pure in its motivation under different circumstances - but the realisation of their existing lives must take precedence if they are to avoid hurting everyone around them.  The other remarkable thing about this film is that even though the entire dialogue is about as "fa-fa" British as one could ever hear, the innermost thoughts of the woman caught in this spiral of love might well be the same as those we would be feeling when contemplating the actions we'd take if put in a similar situation.  And the woman's internal monologue even consists of wishing that some of the "dreadfully boring" people she meets would just walk away and die  ... some things just never change, do they?

Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is a relatively happily married woman who carries on with her weekly run of shopping, visitations to the library and lunch with friends.  Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) is a doctor who practices at the local hospital and happens across Laura one day at the train station café.  Normally, these two would never have met before, but chance (or fate it seems) results in Laura missing her train after she gets something caught in her eye, to which the doctor volunteers to help remove the offending particle. And so begins a bond that soon matures into a mutual (but secretive) love affair.

Brief Encounter

In the meantime, an obligatory sub-plot between the station attendant (Stanley Holloway) and the object of his own desires with the café owner (Joyce Carey) carries on, completely oblivious to the goings-on of the couple at the end table who's discussion involves a lot more than "pass the sugar".  But, unlike the flirtations across the café bar, the love that blooms furtively in the corner is one which can only end in misfortune if it is allowed to run its course.  The two train-crossed lovers battle their inner demons that seek to pursue a life of short-term blissful happiness (which would forever affect the lives of their families that they have previously declared their devotion to) and face the inevitable heartbreak that will occur when they finally acknowledge the error of their ways.

As you can tell from the screencaps, this ain't nearly as colourful as The Wizard Of Oz or Gone With The Wind.  The golden age of black & white was in its prime here when filmmaker's mastered the use of effective contrast to present a mood and emotion that is impossible to capture even in today's world of technicolour film-making.

For a movie that's almost 60 years old, the restoration of this romantic classic is quite remarkable but it won't set your television on fire if it were broadcast on late-night TV.  Blacks are just deep enough to hold their own with the background detail and rim-lighting around the characters and objects on-screen.  Grain and artifacts are kept surprisingly down to a minimum, but transitions between scenes have that all too obvious dark-then-light meld that is seen everyday with films of this era.  The focus is typically soft for this type of film (look up "dreamy").

Overall, the film exhibits a variable quality which is obviously a result of the various locales that the scenes were filmed in, but this type of inconsistency is common with every film of this ilk.

In short, the soundtrack is pretty unremarkable (in the original mono), but it serves the purpose of providing easily understandable dialogue first and foremost - although the short-and-sharp dialogue can take some getting used to, which is common in most early 20th century films.  Any dramatic cues such as louder musical passages or of trains going by are met with quite a low ceiling of output which often results in an overload of the soundtrack, but this doesn't hamper any of the talking that goes on.  Bass and surround usage is completely non-existent.

Brief Encounter

The main extra of any note to speak of within the R4 DVD here is the 24-min retrospective featurette containing interviews with mainly film historians and biographers but also with the still surviving members involved with the production, such as the producer and the woman who played the young female assistant to the café owner.  This documentary is even more slow-paced than the film itself, but it is an interesting analysis of how the movie came about.  The rest of the supplemental material belongs to the theatrical trailer (which oddly has a slightly cropped 1.66:1 ratio on it as well as a sepia tone), a limited photo gallery and even leaner biography section.

And according to the R1 Criterion DVD of this movie, there was a "digital restoration" afforded for Brief Encounter - the packaging does not make mention of this fact so I thought I'd let you know about it here.  However, the R1 Criterion DVD also came with a restoration featurette, an audio commentary by a film historian and a collectable booklet essay, all of which are not present on this R4 DVD.  And just to confuse things a bit more, the R1 Criterion DVD misses out on the retrospective featurette found on the R4 version.

There are also a couple of niggles regarding the DVD packaging.  One is the running time which indicates 86 minutes where it is more like 83 minutes on this PAL DVD (most likely due to the proper 24fps cinematic length being a bit longer).  Another is the inclusion of the "layer transition may trigger a slight pause" disclaimer, which is odd considering it's only a single-layer disc.  And finally the subtitle stream which has to unavoidably shorten if not remove whole sentences for the sake of readability for the quick-talking dialogue inherent in the movie.

Brief Encounter
Now, as much as the kiddies will imitate their "throwing up in the bucket" routine whenever a film of this vintage is suggested for them to watch, Brief Encounter still holds a lot of contemporary views on the search for personal indulgence, even if society's views were considered quite stilted (however well-meaning) at that time.

So if this is your English cup of tea, then you will be pleased with what's on offer for this R4 DVD, even with the limited extras that I think make up for what is expressed in the full-length commentary found in the R1 version.  And if the young-ones in your family are still sticking their fingers down their esophagus when you bring out this DVD from the shelf, then just tie them down to the couch and stick their eyes open with a couple of matchsticks ... although they should really want to watch it of their own accord if they are to benefit from the experience.