Brief Encounter is a strange film. The story is one of misery, really, misery that is quite beyond recovery, misery inflicted by habits of self-abnegation inculcated by a system of class and gender hierarchies that the film cannot shower enough praise on, misery that is as odd as conscious decisions that produce it. A man and a woman, both married and settled down, meet at a train station and fall, more or less immediately, like innocents abroad, in almost completely Platonic, sacrificial love. We know from the beginning it will end with him leaving, all noble, buttoned-up, enormously self-destructive sadness, since the story is told by her in flashback from the evening of their parting, but why it ends so desperately is not quite clear. Nothing ever gives us any idea why this pair of moral paragons, quite prepared to inflict apparently such serious damage on themselves that she almost throws herself under a train, would be so enraptured by each other; although Celia Johnson does have eyes that seem able to hold all the world's sorrows, this is only exposed once she is ravaged by grief, and neither is particularly charming or witty, nor in such a state of emotional or marital despond that an otherwise fairly unremarkable individual could send them into a state lovelorn teenagers would be embarrassed by. The drama is all about whether they will succumb to temptation, and well done for that, but the temptation itself is and must be, as a matter of structure, inexplicable. If it were not inexplicable, then their otherworldly decision to draw it out before refusing it, its transcendent character, would have to be made secular, fallible, put back in time.
And that is what is strangest about the film. It is quite consciously out of time. There's no indication, really, that either Laura or Alex made a mistake in marrying someone else, or that their marriages have been marked by any particular unhappiness, let alone that their obviously wealthy, upper-class provincial lives might in some way have caused any dissatisfactions they do have. Yet the film can't help but rely on the idea that they have, since their need for each other is otherwise incomprehensible; if there have been no particular unhappnesses, then their unhappiness must be general, of their class. Yet if it is general in that way, their attitude of horror, of pained sacrifice, towards it, is quite bizarre, to say nothing of the film's obvious approval of exactly that attitude. What loyalties could an institution generating such human misery command among its victims, and how does it persist? More, why does the film punish its characters by imprisoning them within it?
Perhaps part of its appeal was that it was and is out of time. For a film made in 1945, it is very much of certain kind of English life of the previous decade. There is nothing of the war that was being won, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of British lives, or of the changes those sacrifices and that victory would bring; a film with an idealistic doctor as one of its two protagonists, apparently concerned about public health, proceeds blissfully unaware of the changes that profession was about to undergo, for example. The class that the protagonists occupy only ever has the legitimacy of its position buttressed, shored up with reassurances about their virtue in the face of this inexplicable temptation, an act of God beyond human ken. This is even though that class is central to the film's drama by creating their misery, and so disinterest in what it is that stifles and crushes them drains it of some of its power. It was chosen as the second best British film of the twentieth century by the BFI in 1999; what, one wonders, does this tell us about the critics who completed the BFI's survey?