Brief Encounter is a 1945 British film directed by David Lean about the mores of British suburban life, centring on a housewife for whom real love (as opposed to the polite arrangement of her marriage) was an unexpectedly "violent" thing. It was directed by Lean and stars Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. The screenplay is by NoŽl Coward, and is based on his 1936 one-act play Still Life. The soundtrack prominently features the Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff, played by Eileen Joyce.
Laura Jesson (Johnson), a suburban housewife, tells her story in the first person whilst at home with her husband, imagining that she is confessing her affair to him.
Laura ventures into the nearby town of Milford once a week for shopping and to the cinema for a matinťe. Returning home from one of her weekly excursions, at the station she gets a piece of grit in her eye which is removed by another passenger, a doctor called Alec Harvey (Howard). Both are in early middle-age, married, and both have two children. The doctor is a general practitioner who also works one day a week as a consultant at the local hospital, but his passion is for preventive medicine, such as addressing the causes of respiratory illness in miners.
Enjoying each other's company, the two arrange to meet again. They are soon troubled to find their innocent and casual relationship quickly developing into love.
For a while, they meet furtively, constantly fearing chance meetings with friends. After several meetings, they go to a room belonging to a friend (Valentine Dyall) of the doctor, but they are interrupted by the friend's unexpected return. This brings home the fact that a future together is impossible and, wishing not to hurt their families, they agree to part. Besides, the doctor is considering leaving for Johannesburg, South Africa.
Their final meeting is at the railway station refreshment room which we see for the second time with the poignant perspective of their story. As they await a sad and final parting, Dolly Messiter, a talkative friend of Laura, invites herself to join them and is soon chattering away, totally oblivious to the couple's inner misery.
As they realise that they have been robbed of the chance for a final goodbye, Alec's train arrives. With Dolly still chattering, Alec departs with a last look at Laura but without the passionate farewell for which they both long. After shaking Messiter's hand, he lightly squeezes Laura on the shoulder and leaves. Laura waits for a moment, anxiously hoping that Alec will walk back into the refreshment room; he does not. As the train is heard pulling away, Laura suddenly dashes out onto the platform. The lights of a passing express train flash across her face as she conquers her impulse to commit suicide; she then returns home to her family.
In the final scene of the film, which does not appear in the original Coward play, Laura's husband Fred suddenly shows that he has not been completely oblivious to her distress in the past weeks, and saying "Thank you for coming back to me" takes her in his arms.
The film mentions neither the Second World War nor any of the hardships that it brings. While no character refers to a specific time, the fictional film within a film that Laura and Alec see, Flames of Passion, which is newly released, displays a copyright date of 1938. When Laura returns home following the first (and last) scene, her daughter wishes to see a pantomime suggesting a setting in time during the weeks before Christmas. A further indication the film takes place in winter is that one scene appears to be set at night except that people greet each other with "good afternoon".
The film was released amid the social and cultural context of the Second World War when 'brief encounters' were thought to be commonplace and women had far greater sexual and economic freedom than previously. In British National Cinema (1997), Sarah Street argues that "Brief Encounter thus articulated a range of feelings about infidelity which invited easy identification, whether it involved one's husband, lover, children or country" (p. 55). In this context, feminist critics read the film as an attempt at stabilizing relationships to return to the status quo. Meanwhile, in his 1993 BFI book on the film, Richard Dyer notes that owing to the rise of homosexual law reform, gay men also viewed the plight of the characters as comparable to their own social constraint in the formation and maintenance of relationships. Sean O'Connor considers the film to be an "allegorical representation of forbidden love" informed by NoŽl Coward's experiences as a closeted homosexual (p. 157).
The British play and film, The History Boys features two of the main characters reciting a passage of the film. (The scene portrayed, with Posner playing Celia Johnson and Scripps as Cyril Raymond, is the closing minutes of the film where character Laura begins, "I really meant to do it.")