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3 Celia Johnson’s Face: Before and After Brief Encounter

From: War Pictures

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3 Celia Johnson’s Face Before and After Brief Encounter encounter, n.: A meeting face to face; a meeting (of adversaries or opposing forces) in conflict; hence, a battle, skirmish, duel, etc. —Oxford English Dictionary I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people. —Laura Jesson in Brief Encounter (1945) Is Brief Encounter a war movie? Maybe, maybe not. Although Lean made his film during the war and released it right after, it is set just before and thus cannot represent the war directly. As Antonia Lant puts it, “Its diegesis is fastened both to that ‘so-called peace and civilization’ of the winter before the outbreak of war, and to the time of the audience’s present, that is, 1945.”1 Brief Encounter is thus not about the military, although a couple of thirsty soldiers show up to offer some much needed comic relief. Its main male characters—the husband, the lover, and the lover’s disapproving friend—are not in uniform, although Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and her husband, Fred (Cyril Raymond), idly imagine a naval career for their young son Bobbie. It is not about the Blitz, although Lean filmed exterior shots on the west coast of England in part to better observe the blackout. It is not about mourning, although its main character, Laura Jesson, wanders past a war memorial at a moment of poignant personal dejection. Although Lean himself talked about Brief Encounter in relation to the wartime rise of British cinematic realism, the film’s reception has mostly accepted the war’s absence from the film and steered clear of it as a significant context; with some important exceptions (most notably Lant’s essay) postwar critics focus instead on its old-fashioned sexual politics, its very English atmosphere of barely managed repression, and its considerable command of cinematic technique. So, although Brief Encounter is not about war because it is set just Brief Encounter | 137 before its beginning, it is also all about war insofar as the war, present in its absence, contributes to its tense, expectant, and mournful mood; if it seems that Brief Encounter is not about war, war is nonetheless all about—around, near, adjacent to—it. The film’s complicated temporal relation to the war is reflected in its equally complicated narrative structure: the film begins at its end, six weeks after its protagonists first meet; it then flashes back to the start and makes its way back from that beginning to the end of the affair with which the film began. The film’s compressed play of before and after is thus another version of the self-consciously involuted narrative designs of both Colonel Blimp and Henry V, films that, as I’ve argued, put narrative and cinematic pressure on the difference between past and present in order to make difficult arguments about the experience of war. However, where those films deal in wide, obviously historical timespans (1902, 1918, and 1942; 1415, 1600, and 1944), the events of Brief Encounter take place less than a decade before the film’s time of release. That said: if only a few years separate Brief Encounter’s setting from its appearance, those years were filled with a violence that would have made the suburban plenty of Laura’s world seem like a paradise lost. “Lights are blazing, trains run on time, chocolate is purchased without coupons”: these are relatively trivial instances of what divided the setting of Brief Encounter from the time of its arrival in cinemas .2 So, although its past would have looked uncannily like its present to audiences in 1945, references to the war and its effects would in fact have been as anachronistic to Brief Encounter as a wristwatch on a Roman gladiator . Despite all this, I want to argue that Brief Encounter is not only a war film but also Lean’s best war film, a war film that uses cinematic technique to make important and difficult arguments about war, arguments that are present throughout the film but especially in the film’s most characteristic shot: a recurring close-up of Celia Johnson’s face. In other words, I want to suggest that that film exploits technical aspects of cinema in order to think about the experience of war and the pressure that war puts on life before, during, and after. Once again, these techniques, arguments, and ideas are embodied with surprising and poignant economy in a shot of Celia Johnson ’s face. Screen...



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