Brief Encounter: perhaps the best-loved romance of all

Let there be love

Filmmakers have fallen out of love with romantic movies, but it’s time to bring back passion to the picture house


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Great love stories, once a staple of British cinema, have pretty much vanished from our screens. The reasons why filmmakers have fallen out of love with the genre include cynicism, changing relationship dynamics and a retreat into solitude. It is a loss we should feel because a good romantic film can teach us so much about the human condition.

A quick scroll through my local cinema listings reveals just how far we have strayed from the path of true love. The week I selected, much like any other, includes an all too familiar and American conveyor belt of rehashed superheroes and kick-ass kiddie-flicks and something called Bottoms about two teenage girls who “start a fight club in order to find someone to have sex with before graduation” — as a premise, the antithesis of a romantic love story. Those seeking an amorous night out will struggle to find anything even remotely smooch-worthy.

Go back to the cinema listings for 1945 when the country was in a far bigger mess than it is now and you find a very different picture. That torturous final year of war saw the release of several classics including Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going, Rebecca starring Lawrence Olivier and perhaps the best-loved romance of all, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter. Here were films about personal salvation that gave audiences the opportunity to see beyond the carnage of the war years.

The plot of Brief Encounter, about a doomed affair between a pair of unhappily married suburbanites, is deceptively simple and yet the story still manages to touch us on a deeply emotional level. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s clipped vowels and chastened dalliances may seem absurd to us now, but there is a deep sadness underpinning this classic tale of forbidden love. The melancholy is especially poignant because, whilst Coward dares to question the era’s moral certainty around extramarital affairs, he eventually brings his wayward couple back to their dull but respectable marriages, leaving audiences in no doubt as to their own moral obligations.

It is unlikely such a film would be made today in an era where moral transgression has become the new enlightenment. If the Celia Johnson character is so unhappy in her marriage, why shouldn’t she dump her boring husband for a better life?

This modern perspective misses the point of what makes a love story like Brief Encounter so touching. When people stop believing in sacrifice and lose faith in compromise, love becomes just another disposable entitlement drained of all value. Why would anyone want to make a movie about that?

One of the reasons young people have become so cynical about the idea of finding true love is because it seems like so much hassle. With fears around rape culture and consent dominating university campuses, is it any wonder screenwriters have become wary about entering the fray? Much safer for producers to ignore the genre altogether and focus on franchising. Without the benefit of cinema’s reflective lens, how are young people supposed to navigate love’s messy but worthwhile machinations?

We used to have Richard Curtis as a barometer of sorts, shining a light on the awkward triumphs and embarrassing ineptitudes of the English in love. Sadly, the flaccid sentimentality of 2003’s Love Actually spelt the end of Curtis’s run of popular romantic comedies, leaving a nation bereft of filmmakers willing to take on the mantle. Seen today through the lens of postmodern cynicism, Curtis’s simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl narratives seem even more dated than Brief Encounter’s more subtle approach.

Much as Curtis can be credited for bringing romance back to British screens in the 1990s, his films are essentially harmless fluff, more comedy than romance. European and American filmmakers have better tried to understand the depths of human passion.

The Before trilogy stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy

Richard Linklater’s poignant Before trilogy follows the relationship of a couple from when they first meet at a Parisian bookshop to the turmoil of marriage breakdown and then the pair’s eventual reconciliation. Filmed over nine years, the collaborative scripts brilliantly portray the sad ebbing away of romantic idealism as the ageing couple, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, try to reconcile shifting priorities.

It’s an uncomfortable, uncompromising study of a couple’s attempt to keep the spark of love alive whilst simultaneously drifting apart. In Sam Mendes’s even more searing 2008 adaptation of Richard Yates’s 1961 debut novel Revolutionary Road, we witness how quickly passion can turn to contempt when mutual needs are not met.

It is this yearning for intimacy, rather than intimacy itself, that engages audiences. Watching two people in the throes of passion for ninety minutes is boring because it offers little insight into the complexity of human interaction — other than showing our capacity for joy, which most of us already understand.

A great love story has a lot to tell us about the dangers that befall us once we dare to open our hearts. That is why we feel patronised when a film lapses into sentimentality; love without risk is just so much saccharine. The genius of Brief Encounter lies not in its portrayal of two people falling in love but in the complex moral dilemma that befalls them after they have fallen in love. Early scenes of the couple on a romantic drive together or giggling at Donald Duck cartoons are the least interesting part of the movie.

Coward’s masterwork is seen as a period piece, but even the halcyon days of the 1990s and early 2000s when cinemas were replete with romantic movies are now part of moviemaking history. Films such as Shakespeare in Love (1998), Sliding Doors (1998) and Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) are from a different, more innocent age. Is there a future for romantic films? Hollywood still knocks out the occasional schmaltzy Valentine flick, but they are mostly forgettable. The streamers have produced some meatier fare with films such as Noah Baumbach’s 2018 ironically titled Marriage Story, a harrowing tale of a warring couple going through a bitter divorce.

There have been a handful of modest British cinema successes over the past decade or so, including The Wife, a 2017 drama starring Jonathan Pryce and Glenn Close; and 45 Years from 2015 in which Charlotte Rampling discovers that her husband Tom Courtenay was once engaged to someone else.

These rarefied one-offs are largely aimed at older, upper-middle-class Hampstead types looking for a bit of arthouse escapism. This follows a trend amongst British filmmakers for focusing on either the very posh or the very deprived, to the exclusion of the vast majority of the population who rarely get to see their own romantic lives reflected back at them. What we desperately need are more Shirley Valentines, Gregory’s Girls and Educating Ritas. For an industry supposedly wedded to inclusivity, filmmakers appear unwilling to produce love stories with a broad appeal.

In an increasingly febrile, disconnected world, it seems unlikely that we will be seeing a resurgence of romantic films any time soon. Disney’s live action remake of Snow White, due for release in 2025, has already caused controversy after lead actor Rachel Zegler told Variety that the latest reincarnation of the much-loved princess “won’t be saved by the prince. And she’s not going to be dreaming about true love. She’s dreaming about becoming the leader she knows she can be”. Zegler even hinted that scenes featuring Prince Charming “could get cut”, which tells you everything you need to know about the state of romantic filmmaking.

As with so much cultural output these days, social justice activism has subverted movie conventions, particularly around sex and relationships. Traditional boy-meets-girl narratives have become a minefield of gender-based sensitivities. Boys can no longer be the dominant force within a relationship whilst girls must always be on top and in control, especially if it means sticking it to the patriarchy.

This “you-go-girrrl” imperative that implies women no longer need men to feel validated makes a mockery of popular romantic movie conventions such as the handsome hero sweeping a distressed damsel off her feet. Last year’s Barbie movie sought to hammer home the point by showing Ken dolls spending their days cavorting on the beach whilst the Barbies hold down prestigious jobs such as doctor, lawyer and politician. When Beach Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, seeks a more intimate relationship with Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, she rebuffs him in favour of female friendships.

With the exception of Netflix’s recent hit One Day, TV romance hasn’t fared much better, with mainstream channels choosing to focus on the ins and outs of suburban swingers, as in last year’s The Couple Next Door or the suburban gloom of Marriage about a dreary couple trapped in the tedium of marital graft. Normal People, an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel, has some interesting things to say about the awkwardness of adolescent sexual awakenings, but it is more concerned with the physical than the transcendent. Heterosexual love stories have also become increasingly passé as producers seek to diversify content.

Despite the extended drought, there is a glimmer of hope that traditional love stories may survive the ongoing cultural onslaught. Last year’s Past Lives, Celine Song’s feature debut about two Koreans whose lives intertwine after years spent apart, has captivated audiences and reviewers alike, with two Oscar nominations. This sensitive, mature tale of lost opportunities and the lengths to which people will go to recapture what might have been, just goes to show you can’t keep a good love story down.

If only Brits could produce something of equal merit, audiences starved of homegrown romance might start to fall back in love with those sad, beleaguered multiplexes.

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