Make tea, not love,” one critic summed up the underlying message in David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Another called it “the definitive document of middle-class repression”. The film split opinion 76 years ago and continues to do so today. Written by Noel Coward, this story about an unconsummated love affair between a suburban, Home Counties housewife, Laura (Celia Johnson), and a swarthy doctor, Alec (Trevor Howard), has long been parodied as well as praised.
The couple meet by chance on the platform at Milford Junction Station when a speck of dust gets in Laura’s eye and the doctor helps remove it. They’re quintessentially middle-class types who sublimate their true feelings about their mutual attraction. Instead of sex scenes, Lean shows the audience shots of trains disappearing into tunnels as Rachmaninov music pounds away on the soundtrack. The closest the film comes to real physical intimacy is when the couple kiss on a sofa. They steal away one afternoon to watch a B movie called Flames of Passion at the local cinema but the only real heat here comes from the steam belching forth from the railway engines.
As Lean’s biographer Gene D Phillips notes, 1940s working-class audiences ridiculed Lean’s “sensitive, subtle” film. The director watched it with a preview audience at a cinema near Chatham Dockyards and was appalled when one woman started guffawing at the tameness of the love scenes. The laughter spread throughout the audience and another viewer soon shouted out: “When is he going to have it off with her?” The answer, of course, was never. That was the whole point.
Echoes of Brief Encounter can be heard in the new Netflix film The Dig, starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes. Ostensibly, this is the story of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo burial site in a field in Suffolk in 1939. In fact, it is as much about class, repression and sexuality as about archaeology. The digging that director Simon Stone is doing is into the emotional lives of his uptight protagonists. Like Lean’s film, The Dig is full of characters who can’t bring themselves to talk about sex. They don’t much like mentioning death either, despite the fact that it surrounds them.
Mulligan, who bears a passing resemblance to Johnson, plays Edith Pretty, the widowed lady of the manor. She is beautiful and fragile, suffering from a crippling illness which she tries to keep secret from her young son.
Fiennes is Basil Brown, the self-taught archaeologist from a humble background who is clearly drawn to her, but won’t ever admit to such feelings. There is also a young married woman (Lily James) ignored by her priggish husband (Ben Chaplin) but very attracted to Edith’s dashing nephew Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn).
In a revealing scene midway through The Dig, archaeologist Piggott (Chaplin) walks in on his wife Peggy (James) in the bath. He is horrified and averts his eyes, as if seeing her naked will turn him to stone. She reminds him that they are actually married but he still won’t look. This is partly to do with his sexuality (he is more interested in one of the strapping young male archaeologists on the Sutton Hoo dig than in her) but also hints at his misogyny. He is too prudish to acknowledge her desires and too much of a chauvinist to accept her as an equal even though she is an archaeologist too.
The scene verges on the comic. It reminds us just why, in the 1970s, we (in the UK) were still making comedies with titles like No Sex Please – We’re British (1973). Filmmakers liked to deflect the national embarrassment about addressing physical desire by making saucy jokes and turning to humour.
That embarrassment also explains why Brief Encounter has been the subject of so many parodies. Comedian Victoria Wood was responsible for one of the best, a black and white skit in which the suburban housewife (played by Wood herself) puts a mince pie in her eye in a 1940s railway station cafe. Cue the appearance of the Trevor Howard-like doctor. The twist here is that the repressed housewife eventually runs off not with the doctor but with her female friend, Dolly.
Early in his career, Midnight Express director Alan Parker made a Bird’s Eye frozen food commercial lampooning Brief Encounter. This shows our rugged hero saying a tearful goodbye to his beloved, who is framed in the window of the departing train. The mist swirls around the platform and the classical music grows ever louder. His despair, though, is tempered by the oven-ready Roast Beef Dinner for one waiting for him at home. It comes with peas, cream potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. Best of all, he can enjoy it on his own, without having to share it with her.
These squibs at the expense of Lean’s film are partially justified. From one vantage point, the behaviour of the would-be lovers is indeed absurd. They’re too terrified of the opprobrium of their friends and neighbours to step out of line. Having an affair wouldn’t only be selfish and hurtful. It would be very bad form. “I’ve fallen in love with you,” Alec tells Laura in matter-of-fact fashion as if he is delivering a diagnosis of a minor chest ailment. “Yes, I know,” she replies, equally deadpan, but both are far too “sensible” to give in to their emotions. In another scene, looking for words to describe the man she has fallen for, the best Laura can come up with is: “He’s awfully nice.” Tales of amour fou don’t come any more straitlaced than this.
“You can’t help but feel that it is not so much the immorality of sexual infidelity that holds [Laura] back as the basic social humiliation of the circumstances. [Celia Johnson’s] playing is of rare subtlety. Basically, it is a comment on class,” critic Dilys Powell noted.
Late on, the pair are almost caught in flagrante by Alec’s friend, Stephen, who comes back to his house unexpectedly. They’ve just kissed when they hear him. She flees through the tradesman’s entrance but leaves her scarf, which Stephen spots. Alec apologises cravenly for a situation that “must seem inexpressibly vulgar” while Stephen taunts him with sarcastic remarks about doctors needing to see their female patients privately. It’s the seediest, most furtive and uncomfortable moment in the film, one in which the couple’s shame about their illicit tryst is painfully apparent.
Nonetheless, as Brief Encounter proved then and The Dig now underlines, the social and sexual hang-ups of the British middle classes can make for rich and multilayered drama. In these stories, characters rarely say anything directly. Just as the archaeologist played by Fiennes in The Dig has to scrape delicately to reveal the fragile artefacts beneath the soil, the filmmakers probe away at the hidden desire of their protagonists. Only very slowly are these feelings exposed. The mannered mix of reticence and concealment provide the films with their pathos and power.
Repression has always been fertile ground for British cinema. One actor who has excelled in playing characters who can’t express their emotions is Anthony Hopkins. The Welsh star is back in Oscar contention for his performance as an old man struggling with dementia in The Father. Over the years, he has given his share of roaring performances as knights and kings and is justly celebrated for his charismatic, chianti-sipping serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) but two of his finest screen roles were in 1990s British films about deeply inhibited characters.
In James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993), Hopkins played Mr Stevens, a butler in a country house who is so obsessed with etiquette that he can’t acknowledge his feelings toward the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson).
In Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands (1993), he was cast as Narnia author, theologian and Oxford academic, CS Lewis, who marries a young American poet (Debra Winger). Lewis struggles to show his love for her although his grief at her death is overwhelming. Hopkins’s brilliance in both roles lies in his understatement. There are no big set pieces where he breaks down or smashes the furniture but his seething inner turmoil is apparent in every frame.
To audiences in the permissive 1960s, Brief Encounter appeared absurd. Critic Raymond Durgnat wrote about seeing the film in 1965 in a London cinema where the audience “couldn’t restrain its derision and repeatedly burst into angry exasperated laughter”. They loathed it. The irony, though, is that whereas much Sixties cinema now seems crude and dated, Lean’s classic continues to be revived and was re-released last year to mark its 75th anniversary.
“I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people,” Laura laments in her plaintive voice-over. Her clipped Home Counties diction can’t hide her distress. Lean’s achievement was to make a searing romantic drama that took place in the most banal suburban settings imaginable. Much of The Dig, meanwhile, unfolds in a muddy field in Suffolk where archaeologists are excavating an ancient Anglo-Saxon ship. That doesn’t sound any more exciting as a movie location than Milford Junction on a wet Tuesday night. However, once the filmmakers start to scratch beneath the surface, they too find their share of buried treasures.
The Dig is out on Netflix on 29 January