The Passionate Friends + Brief Encounter

The David Lean retrospective is upon us. Tonight I caught a double-bill of The Passionate Friends (1949) and Brief Encounter (1945), and was struck by the differences and similarities between those two films.

The similarities, however significant or superficial, include: they both concern adulterous affairs, whether consummated or not; they both star Trevor Howard as one of the two lovers (he’s a doctor in one film and a biologist in the other, two professions that sort of overlap); they both feature voice-overs and brief sequences that articulate and visualize the female lover’s fantasies; they both feature scenes in which someone remarks that it’s socially unacceptable for a woman to smoke on the street; and they both include scenes where a heartbroken woman considers throwing herself in front of a train.

The differences are more interesting, I think. The female protagonist in Brief Encounter is married with children and comes from a small-town middle-class background, while the female protagonist in The Passionate Friends is married to a banker and lives in a rather large house, with no children whatsoever. The husband in Brief Encounter is kept in the dark about his wife’s affair, while the husband in The Passionate Friends — played expertly by Claude Rains, who would reunite with Lean on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — not only figures things out, but ultimately lets his suspicions get the better of him. And — most significantly, I think — the affair in Brief Encounter happens quite surprisingly and spontaneously, whereas the affair in The Passionate Friends, while aided by chance encounters, ultimately grows out of an old, old relationship.

It is this last detail that gives me pause, more than any other, when I say that Brief Encounter is probably the better, more “entertaining” film of the two, yet I find myself thinking that The Passionate Friends is more plausible and in some ways more interesting.

I suppose it is possible — just possible — that a reasonably happily married mother of two could meet a total stranger once every week and fall so madly in love with him after just three weeks that she would almost commit suicide when their meetings come to an end, as happens in Brief Encounter. But I find it hard to identify with such a person. The early moments between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are funny and enticing, and they set up, quite convincingly, a situation in which a series of “innocent” encounters could grow into something far more serious. And the final moments between them, when a chatty neighbour intrudes on their farewell, are also quite devastating, in their own sublimated way. But the story requires this love affair to begin, peak, and end in less than a month, and so, when Johnson says their situation is foolish and absurd, I am inclined not only to agree, but to think that maybe she and Howard ought to get their heads examined.

The Passionate Friends, on the other hand, stars Ann Todd (who became Lean’s third wife shortly after this movie came out) as a woman who was once deeply in love with Howard, but married Rains instead; and then, a few years later, she bumps into Howard again, and they see a bit of each other while Rains is out of town; and then, nine years after that, they happen to check in to neighbouring rooms in a hotel in Switzerland, only a day or two before Rains is due to leave his work and join Todd at the hotel. It spoils nothing to say all this because the film begins with the coincidental booking of rooms in Switzerland, then flashes back nine years, and then flashes back even further — so you know roughly how each phase in the relationship is going to end before you even see it begin. And while it makes for a somewhat complicated narrative structure, the relationship between Todd and Howard is actually more believable — and easier to identify with — because they have known each other for so long, but also because there is the sense, however justified it may or may not be, that Todd made a mistake when she married Rains instead of Howard.

And why did she choose Rains over Howard? Ah, that is one of the more interesting aspects of the film. It is suggested, twice and maybe even thrice, that she married Rains as a way of keeping her freedom — as a way of “belonging to herself” and not to Howard. Rains is wealthy too, of course, but he does not expect stormy passions, just loyalty and a certain amount of affection, and Todd is certainly capable of that. But one of the interesting things about their arrangement is that Rains, upon learning that Todd may be cheating on him, begins to feel and act possessive — which is another way of saying that he begins to feel and act possessed. Maybe Todd and Rains really do “belong to” each other after all. And while Todd may be allowed to steer the viewer’s sympathies with her voice-overs, it is Rains who gets our attention through the sheer persistence of his gaze, and the many times we see things from his point of view: the way he stares at the tickets on the desk, the way he peers through binoculars, the way he glares through the drapes.

If I had to watch one of these films again with a friend, right now, I would probably pick Brief Encounter, just because it is such a splendidly made bit of entertainment; the supporting characters provide some marvelous comic relief, and the film makes delightful use of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, among other things. But I wouldn’t mind watching The Passionate Friends again some day, so I can only hope it will come out on DVD here soon.

One last note on The Passionate Friends: There are some nice, atmospheric touches here which hark back to some of Lean’s earlier films and point ahead to his later, better-known epics. I think of the scene where Howard stands alone in an office, and a gust of wind comes in through the window and scatters some papers on a desk, which calls to mind the howling, or gentle, but always portentous winds of Oliver Twist (1948) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970); I think also of the magnificent mountaintops that we see when Todd and Howard go for a hike in Switzerland, which recall the epic scenery of Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India (1984). And there are some fascinating moments where Lean obscures his subjects behind fog or curtains — much as he would do with Peter O’Toole in, yes, Lawrence of Arabia.

One last bit of trivia: The Passionate Friends is based on a book by H.G. Wells. And there is not a shred of science fiction in it. I hadn’t realized he wrote any fiction outside that genre.

And one final, personal note: My best laugh of the evening came during Brief Encounter, when Johnson and her husband are discussing what to do the next day with their squabbling children, who have already gone to bed, and the husband casually says, “We’ll thrash them both soundly, lock them up in the attic, and go to the pictures by ourselves.” I think lines like that sound rather different to me now than they would have done when I first saw this film seven years ago — before I had a wife and children of my own. The line was always funny in concept, but now, as my friend Gavin would put it, I have a common frame of reference, which makes it even funnier. I can relate to it now.

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  • The Passionate Friends was the one film I promised not to miss when the Lean retrospective hit L.A., especially now that it looks like the Lean-MGM DVD line has been discontinued, or at least postponed indefinitely. You’re right—the similarities between the two films are interesting. If Brief Encounter is the more emotionally satisfying film, I think it’s because we are allowed to see the relationship from beginning to end (and all the stages in between), so we feel a stronger aura of consummation when the film reaches its conclusion. Plus, Celia Johnson is the best actress Lean ever worked with, and her portrayal is so immediately sympathetic we’re inclined to forgive her the sin of (near)adultery.

    BTW, you won’t want to miss Madeleine this weekend. Next to Passionate Friends, it’s Lean’s most neglected film!