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Brief Encounter (DVD)

The name David Lean brings to mind the sweeping films that dominated the British director's later career, movies with size and scope that miraculously don't outweigh their director's ambition and ability. While Lean had few peers when it came to visually overwhelming epics, he never lost track of their human element. It's Lawrence that stays with you long after Lean's vision of Arabia has begun to fade. This sense of character is a natural outgrowth of Lean's early directing career, which began with four adaptations of Noel Coward plays produced in collaboration with the playwright. The last of these, the new-to-DVD 1945 film Brief Encounter, is also the most famous, a film as confined, brisk, and economical as Lean's later work is sprawling. But the qualities that make a Lean film are already in evidence. Not only does the director make an entire world out of the film's environments—train stations, movie theaters, mid-tier restaurants—but he also fills them with unforgettably drawn characters. Celia Johnson stars as a housewife just shy of middle age, a woman who describes herself as "happily married" but nonetheless falls easily into a chaste but passionate affair with married doctor Trevor Howard. Though it relies heavily on Johnson's voiceover narration, this quintessentially English story of subjugated passion also plays out in undiscussed details: the degree, for instance, to which each character's life has become determined by train schedules. Or, even more tellingly, the way a character's description of Howard as "very attentive" says everything about why Johnson would leave a loving marriage for a potentially destructive romance. Even if he dwells a bit too much on Encounter's position as a "women's picture," historian Bruce Eder's audio commentary track admirably draws out many of these details—each all the more visible thanks to the DVD's nearly pristine restoration—while placing Encounter firmly in its historical context. But as much as that treatment enriches the viewing experience, Encounter remains the definition of timeless, a beautifully shot, heartbreakingly acted, minutely detailed illustration of thoroughly recognizable human frailty.

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