How a Picture Perfect Brief Encounter Dissolved into a Not-So-Still Life

Last night, when it was time to dim the lights, set up the screen, and decide upon a movie to take in, I could be convinced to leave Broadway and Hollywood behind to make it David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Mind you, it did not require much coaxing. I purchased a copy of the film a few weeks ago, but believed myself to be not deserving of experiencing it just yet. Some motion pictures are so grand that they demand not only our attention but our emotional receptiveness. I have always thought it possible, and indeed imperative, to approach art with a keen eye and an open heart, to feel it and to feel like thinking about it at the same time. To examine Brief Encounter without being enveloped by it would be tantamount to noting the ingredients of a great meal without taking time to savor it.

Only after I had dried the tears I was neither inclined nor able to hold back, did I go in search of another interpretation of the story—cinema reconstituted as radio drama. A while back, I did as much with Lean’s Blithe Spirit, but knew right away that, in this case, radio could not hold a candle to a portrait so delicately outlined and exquisitely lit.

When the Theatre Guild reworked both Brief Encounter and Still Life, the Noel Coward play of which the film is an adaptation, the show’s producers made a number of sensible choices. They managed to bring Ingrid Bergman to the microphone to assume the role of Laura Jesson, the married woman who inwardly rehearses the miracle and misery of her recent indiscretion rather than confessing it openly to the husband beside her. Subtle and dignified, Bergman is perfect for the part, her emotive voice well suited to capturing moments of dignity under the assault of passion.

At the time of the broadcast (6 April 1947), Bergman starred on Broadway in Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine, along with Sam Wanamaker and Romney Brent. Both her costars were heard in the Guild’s “Still Life,” with Wanamaker as Laura’s lover and Brent as her husband. Unlike Bergman, the two male leads do not quite communicate the vulnerability with which Trevor Howard and Cyril Raymond invested their parts.

Watching the film, I was under the impression that Laura was tormented by her overwhelming emotions, whereas the radio version suggested that she was torn apart by the two disparate men in her life, by the one wanting so little and the other demanding so much. What contributed to this impression was the way in which the adaptation by radio playwright and noted broadcast historian Erik Barnouw reframed Laura’s narrative without having access to a camera’s perspectival manipulations.

Lean’s film opens with the lovers’ last parting at the train station, a final farewell rendered furtive and mute by the sudden intrusion of one of Laura’s chatty acquaintances. Before the story of Laura’s affair unfolds in retrospect, the viewer already knows that something went terribly wrong for her, that the man who merely touches her shoulder has a stronger hold over her than she can permit herself to make public. Close-ups convey Laura’s grief, her isolation.

The radio version, on the other hand, opens with a scene of domestic life, as Laura’s husband struggles to control his two children who are unwilling to go to sleep before their mother returns home, presumably from a day of shopping. The listener is thus encouraged to prejudge Laura’s actions, to question the indiscretion of an inattentive mother who leaves her charge in the care of her husband while amusing herself with another man. Before she utters even one word of remorse, Laura is already a marked woman. In other words, whereas radio listeners are invited to accuse or pardon her, the film audience is given access to Laura’s own sense of guilt, her inner turmoil.

Generally, radio plays are quite capable of performing close-ups by means of whispered or closely-miked narration; in this particular cinematic challenge, however, the camera suggests so much more than unillustrated speech can express. When Laura acts on the impulse to end her life, her movements and features (pictured above) bespeak the horror that is her emotional imbalance.

In Barnouw’s adaptation, Laura merely talks in retrospect of having wanted to “throw [herself] under his [that is, her lover’s] train”—an unfortunate prosaic shortcut for the sweep and sway of Lean’s storytelling, aurally underscored images that reminded me, despite my love for the non-visual medium, what a sacrifice it can be to take leave of one’s complementary senses.

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