Meet Trevor Howard.
You all already know who he is, probably. And he’s no relation of Alan Howard’s at all…but I am nothing if not a slave to poetic symmetry.
Trevor Howard plays the villain in Brief Encounter. There I’ve said it. And now, true to the spirit of David Lean‘s film, we’ll go back to the beginning and I’ll explain everything.
THE OPENING STATEMENT
Brief Encounter (1945) is a misunderstood film. A very good one, but very misunderstood. It is not a romance. It’s not a love story, it’s a parable. A moral lesson. A story of good versus evil. An evil so dark as to hide in plain sight, and a good so good that it can’t even perceive the idea of darkness or malignity or dishonesty.
Brief Encounter is a film about a point of view – Laura’s point of view. We know only what she knows, we see only she sees. Her memory shapes this universe, and we see the world entirely through her wide, flattering, doe-like eyes. Through her memory we are witness to a silent confession – a short story about a mini affair.
Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) sits with her husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) enjoying a quiet evening. He does the Times crossword, she attends to her sewing. They listen to Rachmaninoff and, inside her head, she tells him the story of her…brief encounter. How she met a man in the railway station cafe on her regular day-trip to Milford and, over the course of 6 weeks and 5 meetings, fell completely in love with him. Nearly slept with him, in fact. And now he’s moving to Africa. It’s a sad story, as Laura tells it. Full of frustrated passions, selfish desires held in check by loyalty and guilt and fear. It paints the almost-lovers as good people battling their animal natures and winning. And, in so many ways, it’s a lie.
To truly understand my point we have to turn this situation around – imagine being the husband, hearing this story. Would you really believe it? Does it really make any sense, at all?
Laura is a good person – a person without guile or deceit. When she claims, in voice over, to have never lied to her husband before, you believe it. And when her lies are embarrassingly fraught, over-complicated and pointless…that seems to prove it. Laura is so decent she chides herself, internally, for fleeting, hateful thoughts against her friends: “I wish you were dead…no, I don’t mean that, that was silly and unkind. But I do wish you’d stop talking.”
Laura is good, and honest, and…as is so often the case with people like that…consequently believes the whole world to be the same way. She doesn’t recognize dishonesty, even when it’s smiling at her across a restaurant table or sliding her hand into the crook of its elbow. She doesn’t recognize a predator – not even when it looks her in the eyes and licks its lips.
That’s what Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) is – a predator. He is a serial lecher with a routine and a repertoire and a type. He is a scoundrel, a roue and a cad. And, ladies and gentlemen of the internet jury, I intend to lay out before you a series of proofs that will leave you in no doubt – reasonable or otherwise – as to the truth of this assertion.
First of all – and this is very important – we must remember that all we see of “Alec” (if that is even his real name) is what Laura sees. We have no independent verification of his name, job or marital status. It’s possible everything he told her is a lie. Whether or not he’s lying doesn’t really factor in to my argument – but it is very important to keep it in your mind. He is a proven liar, and that means nothing he says can be taken at face value.
Let us assume, for now, that the first two meetings of Laura and Alec are exactly as she perceives them to be – innocent and coincidental bumping-intos. Firstly, at the railway station and secondly, a week later, outside the pharmacy. Now, at this point you could make the case that Alec knows Laura is in Milford every Thursday. That he is aware of her routine and, having flirted with her on both previous meetings, finds her attractive. You could be forgiven for assuming that, on the day of third “accidental” meeting, he sees her the street and deliberately follows her into the Kardomah. I am not asserting that, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it possible.
Either way, on their third meeting they end up eating lunch together at the Kardomah and then going to the cinema. All through-out this lunch-date Alec’s behavior is unarguably flirtatious and romantic. He flatters her, using a cheesy line: “You could never be dull!” – A pointless thing to say to a woman you’ve known only five minutes. Then, after she says she is going to the pictures, he has the brass balls to pull out the “How extraordinary! So am I!” card. Not kidding, word for word. He even dishes out a small helping of emotional blackmail to go with it:
“Would you mind, terribly, if I came to the pictures with you?”
How many of you reading this would fall for that? How many people would think, for a second, that he wasn’t making a move? Look at this face and tell me this is not the face of a lecher eyeing a target:
Further evidence for Alec’s moral vacuity – during this lunch conversation Laura mentions her husband, and good old Alec doesn’t even bat an eye. Moreover, he doesn’t feel the need to mention his own spouse (in fact, for the entire film, Alec never volunteers any information about his wife or children at all).
Later, at the cinema, after Alec has decided it’s OK to ditch those sick freeloaders at the hospital in the name of pursuing a married woman, Laura asks him: “Don’t you feel guilty, at all?” His response is the perplexed response of a psychopath – he dismisses the very idea. “A little relaxation never did harm to anyone, why should either of us feel guilty?” We know what he is talking about when he says “a little relaxation”, even if Laura doesn’t. The implication is pretty clear: Alec never feels guilty about anything. Least of all abandoning his patients and/or wife to spend time with a married woman. He laughs at her for even thinking about it: “How awfully nice you are!” he says. Patronising and belittling her good nature.
By the end of this long day out things have turned so overtly romantic that even the naive – and slightly self deceiving – Laura can no longer deny it. She asks about Alec’s wife, in a subtle effort to remind him of their married status. He doesn’t seem to care, talking about his wife without a twinge of guilt. He symbolically tempts her with a pastry she never asked for and, as the trains arrive to separate them, he begs her – literally begs her – to disobey her conscience and meet with him again the following Thursday. She reluctantly agrees.
The next Thursday rolls around…and Alec doesn’t turn up. This could could mean many things – maybe his wife made plans with him at the last minute, maybe work at the hospital mounted up, maybe his children were sick. Maybe he had a parole hearing or a psychiatrists appointment or had to bury a dead stripper. We never know, Laura never asks. But let us, for a moment, speculate: Maybe he’s a player.
Any of you familiar with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will probably have heard of The D.E.N.N.I.S system. It’s a system whereby the character Dennis (a sociopath playboy) manipulates women into falling in love with him by first nourishing them, and then being withholding. Is this model of behavior what Alec is employing here? Did he sense Laura’s reluctance and seek to thwart it by making her think, temporarily, he had rejected her? It’s possible and, deliberate or not, it works. Laura, who started the day certain in her resolve to never see him again, finishes it by eagerly agreeing to see him the following week.
It should be noted that this next meeting will be the fifth time they have met – 3 of the previous 4 encounters lasted less than 1 minute. They have spent, at the days outset, a maximum of just over 5 hours together. Today, their second “date”, they have lunch again and go to the pictures again and row a boat for a little while. Let’s say all that takes 5 more hours. That’s 10. Ten hours. Less time than it takes to watch all three Lord of the Rings movies. A long Netflix binge. One season of Game of Thrones. No time at all. And what does dear Alec do? He drops this bomb on her: “You know what’s happened don’t you? I’ve fallen in love with you.” That’s right – he goes nuclear. More than that, he then proceeds to pretty much force her to say it back.
It’s at this point that Laura’s superego decides to start chiming in. She declares they must “be sensible” and “forget that we’ve said what we’ve said“. His response? “Not yet. Not quite yet.” An odd thing to say. It rather implies that yes, he does indeed plan on forgetting this…but not until *ahem* afterwards. Then comes another speech from Alec, which again reeks of practice and routine: “We know. We, both of us, have known for a long time.” A long time, in this instance, meaning a MAXIMUM of ten hours. They have not spoken on the phone, exchanged letters or sent smoke signals. They spent ten hours together. Long enough to read a person, but not love a person. Long enough to see that a woman is bored, and shy and looking to break her routine…but not long enough to fall in love. Laura is distressed, anxious and frightened – does he have a frank an honest talk with her? Does he empathize? No. He launches into a generic speech about loving her eyes and laugh, he reduces her to guilt-strained tears, and he never comforts her. Never advises her. His face is set in stone.
Later, as they prepare to part, he crowbars a first kiss out of her – once again using the phrase “I love you” as an emotional weapon. She gives in, and floats home on dreams of wings and love and a school girls blushes. This is not real, this is where people like Alec live their lives, the tortured little part of everybody that desperately wants to be something else, somewhere else with someone else.
When Laura gets home she lies to her loving husband for the first time of their lives.
The next Thursday arrives. As Laura waits outside the hospital, it’s not hard to imagine the nurses looking down at her from the windows. Giggling to themselves. “Alec has got another one.“, “Poor thing has no idea.“. I’m not entering this into evidence, it is rampant speculation, but it rings true to me.
We know that Laura has had a terrible week. Shredded by guilt and nerves. Does Alec appear this way, as he bounds down the hospital steps? Far from it. He is jubilant. Giddy. And he has the day all planned out. First they go to lunch at an expensive place. He orders a bottle of champagne. When two friends of Laura’s spot them together Alec fails yet another question on the psychopath test: not seeming at all bothered by the idea of being caught out in their lies.
He has borrowed a friend’s car and together they drive into the country. They stumble, totally by accident because Alec has never done this before, onto a little bridge and a romantic walk. Laura genuinely believing the spontaneity of the moment.
This is where things turn seedy…well, seedier.
They return the car to the friend’s garage and Laura tells us: “Alec said he had to return the car keys to Stephen’s flat, and suggested I come up with him.” Ponder that for a moment. Is this how you talk to someone you’re so desperately in love with? Try and trick them upstairs with transparent lies? It’s obvious this is planned. Borrowing his friend’s car so he has to return it. Knowing his friend will be out of the flat. It’s quite obvious what the end game is here, just as obvious is the fact this is not Alec’s first rodeo…so to speak.
It seems to me that, at this juncture, two people who love each other would have a frank and honest discussion about the path their relationship is taking. Alec appears to feel differently. He goes back to the flat, alone. Leaving an unsaid ultimatum hanging over the pair of them. Against her better judgment Laura eventually gives in and returns to the flat.
This scene is where the evidence really starts to build up. Where Laura is awash with nerves at the thought of committing adultery, Alec seems aggressive and eager. Never once does a flash of a doubt cross his face. When the flat’s owner, Stephen (Valentine Dyall), returns unexpectedly Alec suggests the back entrance and fire escape as the means of Laura’s hasty retreat. He says it instantly – with an assuredness that suggests, once again, he has been in this position before.
After Laura had made good her escape the two friends talk – Stephen sees Laura’s scarf on the sofa, and his withering remarks are sharp, disappointed, but not surprised. There is no shock at the fall of his once virtuous friend, no anger on behalf of the betrayed wife. No urging him to think of his children. Whether this suggests that there never was a family at all, or that Alec’s small regard for them is not news, is not clear. Though it clearly must be one or the other.
It is possible, of course, that none of this conversation ever happened. The whole film is based on Laura’s memory – and since she does not witness this talk she can only know about it if Alec tells her about it later. Which means it may have been entirely different.
NB. Stephen is an interesting character. A single man, in his forties, living alone. A catty sense of humour and self-described as “the most broad-minded of men”. I think we all know what that means in a screenplay by Noel Coward. The idea that he may even be a little jealous is an interesting avenue I do not have space to explore here.
When Laura and Alec are reunited, after the former wanders about in the rain for 3 hours feeling ashamed and dirty and being mistaken for a prostitute by a policeman, his first move is try and excuse himself. He doesn’t apologize, or even really ask where she has been or if she’s alright. When Laura tearfully breaks down and tells him it would be better if he left her alone he calls her “dreadfully cruel” – never once acknowledging that the shame and humiliation she’s feeling are all his fault. Once again displaying his manipulative tendencies.
Alec then launches into another of his speeches: “We know we really love each other. That’s true. That’s all that really matters!” (my emphasis). All that really matters…is having sex with a woman you’ve known for 12 hours in your friends flat, without his knowledge or permission. Not your wife. Not her husband. Not your children, and not hers. Not your honesty or integrity or soul. Short term thinking, instant gratification and disregard for consequences are traits of psychopathic personality disorder. Just sayin’.
At this point it’s safe to say good old Alec is getting bored. All the sitting around, grave-faced, while Laura cries and talks about guilt is getting dull. It’s time to either shit, or get off the pot. He deploys the self-destruct device: He’s leaving the country…forever.
He’s a had a job offer from South Africa, as obviously happens all the time. Such is the life of a doctor. Jobs you have no intention of taking, and have never applied for let alone mentioned in conversation, are always being offered to you out of the blue. Especially when it has recently become vitally important you break off all contact with a woman permanently. But there it is…he’s going to Africa.
You wonder how many times he’s made this speech about sudden breaks and one last chances and so on and bloody so on. He probably doesn’t usually let this one fly until after he’s sealed the deal, but Laura is taking too long. He tells her he wasn’t going to accept the job, but now he doesn’t have a choice. He tells her he “hasn’t told anybody about it, not even Madeleine.” Which mean one of three things: a) There is no job. b) There is no Madeleine or c) He’s about to go home, pack up his wife and children, and move them to Africa on 1 weeks notice to avoid awkward looks at Milford lending library. None of these reflect especially well on Alec, do they?
And so we come to the end which, in Brief Encounter, means going back to the beginning. As Laura and Alec sit together, mournful and morose, Laura says that she “wants to die“, to which Alec is typically self involved: “If you died you’d forget me. And I want to be remembered.” A perfectly lovely response to the woman you love confessing suicidal thoughts. Flippant, ego-driven nonsense. They sit, enjoying their last minutes of sitting around telling each other how desperately they are in love and then making sad faces. They are interrupted by Laura’s friend Dolly (Everly Gregg), and their last moments become a collection of strained meaningful looks, stretched taut over polite conversation.
Laura describes Alec as behaving, in these final moments, “So beautifully“. He was full of “such perfect politeness” that “no one could have guessed what he was really feeling.” Interesting. Remove Laura’s biased, rose-tinted vision. Maybe no one could tell what Alec was feeling because he wasn’t feeling anything…except maybe relief. Maybe when he leaves that room, without a word or a look over his shoulder, it’s NOT because it’s so hard to say goodbye…but because it is really, really easy.
It all really comes down to this – is Laura a reliable narrator? Can we trust her interpretation of Alec’s behavior? All the warmth, all the love, is only ever communicated in words – never gestures. He never gives her a gift, or builds up her confidence or asks about her life and dreams. He talks about her only as it pertains to his own life and what he wants. The only evidence that he feels anything for this poor woman is that he says so, and she believes him.
Imagine you had a friend, a close friend. She’s mousy and naive and guileless. She has a nice husband, but you can tell she feels frustrated and stuck in a rut by the books she reads (Laura reads Kate O’Brien novels, a progressive and slightly racy explorer of feminine sexuality). Imagine she related this story to you:
I met a man at lunch. He’s married and has two children. He took me to the cinema and asked to meet me again next week. The next week he stood me up, and never explained. The week after that we went rowing and he told me loved me. I told him I loved him back. Last week he borrowed a friends car, and a friends flat, and tried to seduce me…but we were interrupted. He’s going to Africa next week and I’m never going to see him again.
Would you to tell this friend either:
A) Oh my! How romantic! And what rotten bad luck about Africa!
B) That’s a weird story. He sounds creepy.
It’s got to be the second one, right? I mean – who on Earth would believe that Africa story?
All it takes is a simple re-shuffle in your head. Watch the film through, from beginning to end, all the time thinking: he’s done this before. It rationalizes everything about the man. It throws him in to sharp focus where before he was a confusing blur. He’s a man who likes to pursue and seduce women. He prefers married women, because they are so often bored and lonely and because they are much, MUCH easier to ditch afterwards. He has lines he re-uses and excuses he recycles and when it all gets too messy he runs off to “Africa”. It all fits into place – like the end of the Usual Suspects. Only here the bottom of the coffee mug says “Douchebag” in big red letters.
The thing that’s really interesting about this film is how different it is from other “romances”. I don’t set much stall by romances a lot of the time, as you can see. I think they are largely shallow, and operate in a moral vacuum. So often in stories about love being “in love” is considered to be morally upright – no matter the consequences to anybody. The declaration of love issues an immediate and permanent absolution of sin. Leave your boyfriend at the altar. Run out on your children. Let the world end to save her life. It’s OK when you’re in love.
But that’s not the case here – this film is mature and interesting for that reason. The admission that love and right aren’t necessarily companions that, as Laura puts it: “[Love] isn’t all that really matters! Other things matter too, self respect matters and decency…”
I’m not simply being iconoclastic here – though I will admit to that tendency – but I like the film. Johnson’s performance is touching and sweet, and David Lean’s direction is energetic and interesting given the simple story line. I enjoyed it. But I think most people just don’t get it. This is not a film about the moral quagmire of infidelity or the tragedy of May-to-December romances – this is a film about the battle between right and wrong that rages in every person. An ancient story of a woman and an apple and a serpent on her shoulder.
It’s all summed up when, for just a few seconds, Laura considers jumping in front of a train. There is an escape in front of her – an escape from drudgery and boredom. But the price is too high. She faces down the bad and selfish side of herself and wins. In her own small way, she is a hero.
And if Laura is a hero – then Alec must surely be a villain.