Brief Encounter was not particularly successful at the box-office following its release in November 1945, although, as David Lean wrote in 1947, 'The film did very well in what known as the better-class halls'. One critic thought it was 'more like a French film', which at the time was the highest praise. Indeed, Brief Encounter won the main prize at the first Cannes Film Festival.
Lean attributed its relative commercial failure to its lack of star names. He wrote in Penguin Film Review No. 4: 'There was an unhappy ending. The film was played out in unglamorous surroundings. And the three leading characters were approaching middle-age.'
An additional factor must have been the film's timing: with the euphoria and the traumas of the immediate post-war period, when people were picking up the threads of their lives, audiences could hardly be expected to enjoy seeing the drabness and frustrations of life reflected on the screen, no matter how sensitively portrayed. At the same time, the picture of pre-war Home Counties life that the film conjured up may well have seemed like a foreign land to audiences in 1945; seen today, it is a dream of England long ago.
Lean's fascinating essay on Brief Encounter highlights what many critics regard as the film's chief virtue: its honest depiction of ordinary folk unable to cope with emotions outside their experience. Rather than surrender to their instincts, Laura and Alec abandon their unconsummated affair out of a sense of shame. The middle-class code, built around loyalty to hearth and home, remains intact.
Richard Winnington's News Chronicle review neatly summarizes contemporary attitudes to the film which have been perpetuated ever since. 'Polished as is this film,' he wrote, 'its strength does not lie in movie technique, of which there is plenty, so much as in the tight realism of its detail.' This is a subtle way of acclaiming Noel Coward's one-act play Still Life, on which Brief Encounter was based, at the expense of Lean's cinematic dexterity. Yet what is striking about the film is not its realism, but how Lean manipulates a realist framework to create a haunting fantasy. While the principal settings are realistic (the smokey station buffet; the Kardomah restaurant, complete with ladies' orchestra; Laura's modest semi-detached houst), the narrative structure is certainly not. Laura and Alec's country outings, where the discover (or re-discover) sexual desire, are pantheist visions which will be a preoccupation of Lean's later work. And beside the dimly-lit interiors and the invigorating country scenery are the images of film noir - the rain-washed streets, the litter-strewn subway where Laura and Alec steal a furtive kiss, the sens of being trapped within a repressive social system.
The film is a memory, or reverie; as Laura begins to recall her affair, Lean superimposes a shot of her sitting by the hearth on the first image of the flashback. Laura's visit to the cinema with Alec, where they watch a trailer for 'Flames of Passion', based on the novel 'Gentle Summer', articulates the element of fantasy within the film. Time-honoured romantic imagery is also powerfully present when, on the train, Laura has visions of herself dancing at a ball, being romanced in a gondola and watching the sun go down in the South Seas. When Laura's husband asks her help with a Keats question in The Times crossword, she is able to answer immediately, 'Romance'. 'That's right,' says her husband, it fits with "delirium".' And what better accompaniment to this delirious evening than Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto which issues from the radio. The music starts Laura fantasizing and then dominates every scene in the flashback; it is not simply brilliantly used, it is an important detail in the film's intricate mosaic of the real and the imagined.
Because Laura narrates the film, we must beware of taking everything at face value - the characters are subjective reflections of her sense of romanticism and her sense of guilt. So Alec is without flaws, handsome, considerate, intelligent and a doctor dedicated to saving children's lives, while Laura's husband is dependable yet shown to be helpless when their child is taken ill; he needs the love and support of his wife. Similarly, the much-criticized portrayals of the always-on-duty station guard (Stanley Holloway) and the buffet waitress who affects an upper-class accent (Joyce Carey) are deliberate caricatures; their openly sexual banter is in ironic contrast to Laura and Alec's repressed passion (superbly conveyed by the performances of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in his first starring role).
Brief Encounter remains a remarkably complex film, and if aspects of it have passed into the mythology and cliché of the British cinema, there is more than enough left to fascinate and move us still.