Loved but not lost: David Lean’s Brief Encounter and Dr Zhivago

Brief Encounter was laughed at by audiences when first released, and Dr Zhivago was scorned by critics. Now, argues Michael Newton, we can appreciate them as two of the greatest love stories committed to film

David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) both came into the world looking likely to fail. The British critics loved Brief Encounter, while audiences let it pass by; the critics savaged Zhivago, though the public adored it. The reputations of both films remain mixed. It is striking how many of the legends about Brief Encounter involve people finding it ridiculous. While Lean was filming Great Expectations in Rochester, Kent, Brief Encounter was screened to a predominantly working-class audience; one woman at the front started giggling during the love scenes, and pretty soon most of the audience were laughing with her. At a preview, the critic James Agate loudly provided a running commentary on the film’s faults. It’s rumoured that in France the movie appeared mystifying; if the two protagonists longed for each other so much, why didn’t they just go to bed? Zhivago too has seemed an embarrassment, the whole movie an extravagant instance of “white elephant” art, the large, empty schmaltz that hip 60s critics once so despised.

Yet Brief Encounter and Doctor Zhivago are surely two of the greatest love stories committed to film. Today, 50 years on, we can see how the scale of Zhivago forms the measure of its appeal, and its gorgeousness seems intrinsic to one of cinema’s virtues. With Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, Lean is one of the greatest film directors this country has produced. Like all of them, he is a romantic, and romanticism was his subject matter: the flourishing and the breaking of inordinate desires, the dangerous lure of beauty, of adventure and the untrammelled life. Both films demonstrate the impossibility of an illicit love finding a place in the world. In Brief Encounter, social convention and decency prevent it; romance flourishes only to be worn out by the talk of casual acquaintances. In Doctor Zhivago, it is history and the political realm that prove to be love’s enemy.

Artfully written by Noël Coward, Brief Encounter lays down its resignation from the start: the story begins with the end of the affair. Laura (Celia Johnson) finds herself torn between her children and stolid, crossword-solving husband Fred, and the overwhelming yearning she shares with a handsome married doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). The film plays out as a story told to Fred silently in Laura’s mind, a tale offered and withheld, never to be heard by the man to whom she does, and does not, recount it.

Laura and Alec first meet by accident at a station cafe. Here their affair finds a parallel in the relationship between the cafe’s manager (Joyce Carey) and the station master (Stanley Holloway). They pass quickly through the vibrant collusion of laughter, the conspiracy of shared concern; they sit together in a cinema, mutually dismissive of the grand passions on sale there; they run together to catch a train; step by step, they fall in love.

Playing in Coward and Lean’s In Which We Serve (1942), Johnson slots into the wartime ethos of the community; a ship is that film’s centre, its protagonist, even, with the men and the women who wait for them finding their reality in relation to it. In a war, as Humphrey Bogart once told us, the love problems of the individual don’t amount to a hill of beans. There are no stars in Coward and Lean’s first collaboration, nor in its nostalgic successor, This Happy Breed (1944); these are ensemble pieces, interlacing multiple plots. Then, in Brief Encounter, the pleasures and pressures of the singular life return, with a vengeance.

Watch the official trailer of Brief Encounter

Johnson is no longer many people’s idea of a movie star. She is thin, intense, long-limbed, feline-faced, a Barbara Pym heroine ready, in This Happy Breed at least, to solve all problems with “a nice cup of tea”. Yet hers is a face made for the cinema screen – the strong eyebrows, the large eyes – a face on which nothing is lost. She is so talented, so far from the clipped, detached suburbanite of caricature. Her voice softly breathes diffident desire; here emotion lives in the experience of its suppression. She stands for a heightened, unalienating drabness, someone wary of getting above themselves. The aim is to be sane and uncomplicated, not dull, just awfully nice.

Johnson was an everywoman for the middle classes. This identification with her emerges in part from the way that Brief Encounter not only makes her an actor in her own drama, but just as often presents her as a spectator, in the audience watching a movie, just as we are, looking on at the cafe manager and station master’s romance. In such moments, as she watches them with us, she becomes our representative, her perceptions not distinct from those of the audience who feel with her. In stark contrast, 20 years later, Julie Christie holds up the aspirations of the time, embodying glamour’s distance, the alluring remoteness of beauty. The downbeat fatalism of the 1940s looks easily trounced by 60s optimism, a last sigh of possibility before the three-day-week and then Margaret Thatcher.

Brief Encounter is parochial, small, unemphatically tragic, whereas Zhivago, which covers the expanse of Russia, is epic, poised between the personal and the great event. Yet it would be wrong to make too much of the obvious differences between the films. For all the contrasts, there are deeper connections. There was already a touch of the Russian about Brief Encounter; Laura almost shares Anna Karenina’s fate, struck down on the tracks of a railway station. The whole thing plays like a Chekhov tale set to Rachmaninoff, that music summoning up the vehement feelings concealed in the ordinary day.

Watch the official trailer of Doctor Zhivago

In 1965, it was remarked of Christie, fresh from the success of John Schlesinger’s Darling, that she was becoming a film star while belonging to a milieu (the “swinging London” set) in which her profession was considered “a bit square”: to become a movie star meant to lose your freedom, as you could no longer live in privacy. Actors were as constrained in their own way as Johnson once had been, as trapped in the public role as any Soviet citizen. Their films may explore and celebrate the private life, but the stars themselves had none.

In this way, Christie manifests a paradox of the period: she is a movie star who looks down on the very notion of her profession. This is only one of the ways in which Doctor Zhivago at once pointed to a future and was caught up in a dying tradition. Now it seems drenched in 60s modishness, but the film was wedged between the MGM epic and the strangeness of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Lean’s film unites some of the best talents of the British new wave – Rita Tushingham, Tom Courtenay and Christie – with such embodiments of the old guard as Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness (sometimes implausibly made up as an insurrectionary youth). Geraldine Chaplin, inevitably being perceived as her father’s daughter, signals some of the movie’s Janus-faced properties, being both a “new face” and a reminder of cinema’s long history.

Boris Pasternak’s novel possesses this investment in the old-fashioned, a fiction in the spirit of Stendhal and Tolstoy published in the heyday of the nouveau roman. It provides the pleasures of an adherence to a 19th-century belief in the life revealed in time, set against the disjunctions and incomprehensibility of the modern world. The plot interweaves destinies as improbably as any Dickensian fiction; there may be modernist glances at interruption, the false start, accident and the missed moment, but the world nonetheless promises coherence.

Lean’s Brief Encounter, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) are all questioning films; they face up to dilemmas that cannot be resolved. Zhivago questions nothing and instead accepts everything. This acceptance can make the movie look facile, and yet is also the root of its ultimate affirmation. The film signals Zhivago’s life as a poet by making him (as Laura had sometimes been in Brief Encounter) a passive, attentive character. He stands and watches, and by watching, absorbs the world. He is a witness to life, perceiving the loveliness even in the sweat-soaked would-be suicide; for him, there is no such thing as the sordid. Confined in a railway truck with a handcuffed Klaus Kinski, consigned to forced-labour camp, and dying fellow passengers, passing burned-out villages, he gazes through the frosted window at the snowbound expanse of Russia and simply finds it beautiful. Perhaps romanticism is given too easy a ride in Zhivago. Here the lovers are destroyed from outside, while Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence hollows himself out from within. In Lean’s previous movies, characters break themselves, but in Zhivago they are simply crushed, like Lara probably sent to a camp and forgotten.

Doctor Zhivago raises no questions about the adulterous love at its heart; Zhivago’s affair brings guilt but never recrimination. No one minds the deceptions, all blame is absolved. The revolution may unmake everything, and yet within Zhivago’s circle it remains a courteous world. Everyone is gentle here; perhaps excluding Rod Steiger’s Komarovsky, all are good. If the film is to work on us, we must feel that Zhivago and Lara are destined for each other, and that somehow his relationship with Tonya is a mistake. Tonya is attractive, admirable (a key word in the film). Yet she feels like a sister, too bound up with Zhivago’s childhood, brittle and childlike herself, someone to be protected; it’s as if she is playing at being grown up. Lara, however, is womanly, a capable nurse, intriguingly different from Zhivago in terms of class, and they are very different in appearance, too, her blondeness set against his dark looks.

It shouldn’t be so, perhaps, but the leading actors’ beauty renders their adultery forgivable, just as the film’s beauty acts as its own guarantee – a loveliness that is not kitsch, nor sentimental, but romantic, an opening up before life that enfolds even ugliness in glamour. The extraordinary handsomeness of Omar Sharif and Christie somehow justifies everything. Morally, this is foolish; but in aesthetic terms it graces us with the profound meaning of film itself, and its enraptured relation to the real.

Doctor Zhivago
Snowbound … the lovers are destroyed from the outside in Doctor Zhivago (1965) Photograph: Everett/REX Shutterstock

Zhivago has been found wanting because it is so visually magnificent. Yet the surface spectacle of it is identical to its deepest meaning. Colour here lends significance. It’s a film of greys and reds, the sky’s faded blue and the whiteness of snow. Even flesh looks somehow grey or white, as pale as Christie’s lips. Against this drained pallor, the movie sets the enticement of colour. Colour is both the surface and the heart of the film – and all but a metaphor in a historical moment where “Whites” battled with “Reds”. There is a scene in which Bolshevik troops unwittingly massacre a company of boy soldiers in a sun-drenched wheatfield. It’s a harrowing image of pointless death, and yet the film swathes it, too, in the enchantment of colour, its tones a visual rhyme for Christie’s wheat-coloured hair. Elsewhere there are the sunflowers that weep in an abandoned hospital, the glow of the daffodils in spring. In part, cinema was made to present this fabulous beguilement, enchanted and ensnared by a vision of the world.

Doctor Zhivago invites us to partake in its own embrace of life, that unbearable romantic impulse; it’s there in the way we are shown the forests, the snow-bound houses, the streets at night, the gilt, plush ballrooms and evanescent parties. Where Lawrence of Arabia summons up moments of meeting, figures arriving and riding towards us from beyond, Zhivago gives us people receding, the eye straining to catch the last glimpse of a loved one moving away from us, dwindling through distance into air. Here people are lost; running in a crowd, the hand that holds us lets us go. We run after lovers that we cannot catch up with, we try to call to those too far away to hear. Perhaps both of Lean’s romantic masterpieces indulge too much the melancholy they invite. Yet a place undoubtedly remains for that impractical sadness, and for these yearning celebrations of human failure.

• Brief Encounter is on general release. Doctor Zhivago is on general release from 27 November. BFI LOVE runs at venues across the UK until 31 December.


Michael Newton

The GuardianTramp

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