Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Day 146: A love that dare not.....

Love stories, on screen, begin and end, for me, with Brief Encounter (1945), the David Lean directed-film of the Noel Coward screenplay, based on his own one-act play, 'Still Life' (1936).

Set in 1945, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) a thirty-something housewife and mother, lives with her family in the commuter green belt just south of London. Her life is one of stultifying regularity, until on one of her weekly shopping trips to nearby Milford, she meets a stranger in the railway station waiting room, Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), himself a married man. In a filmic moment that would now be referred to as the “meeting-cute” scene, he removes a piece of grit from her eye and they look at each other in that way that only a man and a woman “look at each other” (that’s a McKee’ism).

A friendship develops and weekly rendezvouses take place, initially at Alec’s insistence. Whilst exited by these clandestine meetings, Laura is always consumed with guilt and a certain amount of shame. The “friendship” becomes a platonic affair and when they do decide to consummate their relationship, it is thwarted by a third party, a friend of Alec’s whose apartment he has borrowed for the occasion. Now Laura’s ignominy and contempt for herself are sealed, after all, this was a day and age, a time and place where such liaisons and such betrayals of one’s family duties (at least for a woman) were deeply, deeply frowned upon; this is indeed ‘scarlet woman’ territory that Laura has stumbled into.

Alec and Laura’s time together is short-lived as he accepts a posting in South Africa. Their parting scene takes place in the same public waiting room where they first met, allowing them little or no privacy, these two who in all probability will never meet again. This final scene also happens to be the same scene that the film began with, only now, as we return to it after what constitutes an hour long flashback, this moment is endowed with so much more.

With Alec gone, the thought of returning to her seemingly dull life, after such heady excitement, drives Laura to the platform’s edge and the thought of ending her life under an express steam train passing through, but thankfully, she doesn’t. Laura Jesson returns to her husband and his crossword, their children and her needlework, but not with the barren desolation that would permeate such a piece if it were written by Chekhov, for, as a writer, that was never Noel Coward’s métier.

Joy and happiness may not envelop Laura’s being that evening - indeed she is distressed beyond consolation, even though her husband attempts to comfort her in his solid way - but there is the feeling that, given time, Laura will ‘come back to her life’, to her family, to herself, and be a richer person for the experience.

Day #146 Tip: Why they can’t be together
Love stories of any hue, are predicated on why the couple cannot be together. For Laura and Alec, the reasons are insurmountable and many.

There is the inner conflict that rages within both of them, knowing how they are both betraying loved ones who have been steadfast, loyal and unswerving, families who will be hurt, marriage vows that will be be broken, personal standards of behaviour that will be laid asunder. Then there are the personal conflicts that they face in the form of their respective spouses, families, friends, neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances; the looks, the acerbic and poisonous words that would dog them. But maybe what most thwarts these two, are the social mores and codes of conduct of the day, in this country just coming out of a war, where personal sacrifice has been the order of the day.

Arguably, for a man, Alec would not have faced such criticism, comment and scorn, but Laura certainly would have, behind her back if not to her face. Brief Encounter is the tragedic flip side of the coin that is the “comedy of manners”. Noel Coward and David Lean gave birth here to an illegitimate sister of Oscar Wilde’s work, born the wrong side of the romantic blanket.

As I wrestle with the Treatment of the love story that I am working on, I come back again and again to Brief Encounter to remind me that my lovers must have damn good reasons why they cannot be, just as I imagine many writers of love stories since have also done.

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