Smoldering romance in classic noir film ‘Brief Encounter’ and new play ‘Arrival & Departure’

Brief Encounter 2

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

by James Bennett

Sometimes the most important things in our lives aren’t singular, momentous events of shattering spontaneity, but instead, slow burns that steadily coalesce into an unstoppable force; such is the case in the smoldering romance depicted in Noël Coward and David Lean’s masterpiece Brief Encounter.  The film deposits us into a beautifully shot noir-esque chiaroscuro world where the contrasts painted on the silver screen mirror the push of the social norms expected of our upstanding subjects and the pull of their desperate, hopelessly contained passion.

As with Brief Encounter, our couples in the world premiere of Stephen Sachs’ new play Arrival & Departure meet in a train station, (theirs the kind that churns coal and grinds steel, ours the kind that surges below the earth.) Brief Encounter’s couple’s first rendezvous transpires in a tidy and charming tea shop, ours in a gritty Dunkin’ Donuts. Over the course of the production, fans of the classic may notice some deviations, updates, and modifications – but none of them alter the thrust of this timeless piece. The heart of yesterday beats with the same rhythm as the heart of today.

Brief Encounter, based on Coward’s one-act play Still Life, is just one of Lean and Coward’s many collaborations, and remains a beacon that has gone on to inform the genre and influence many cinematic brief encounters since. Coward, never married and secretly gay, adapted his one-act with such skill as to retain all the desire and simmering torment he felt in his heart, and that drove his protagonists toward their scintillating, but ultimately doomed affair.

Today, our world is fraught with global geopolitical distress, corruption, panic, and cruelty emanating from the highest offices in our land. Speed of light communication allows us the privilege of experiencing first hand the acute crises of people the world over. Everything is immediate, huge, and of dire importance – this is not the case with Brief Encounter. Lean, who later would become known for his epics (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago) instead delivers to us a simple, clean, purely shot film that takes us deep into the hearts of humankind, and shows us that something close, something intimate, something that slyly unfurls in our psyche can become powerful enough to overcome a lifetime of repression. Perhaps it was only someone who could see things so large, could so beautifully show us something so small.

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