December 30, 2015

Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter

Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actress

"I love your wide eyes," says Trevor Howard's Alec to Celia Johnson's Laura. It's a statement that sounds like a cute little affectionate regard, but it speaks to Johnson's entire performance as a whole. Those wide eyes of hers probably made as big of an impression on me since Bette Davis in Of Human BondageBoth two ladies use their eyes as cinematic weapons. But whereas Davis used hers as an more of a vengeful tool to bait and defend, Johnson uses hers to completely pierce into the viewer's hearts.

It's just staggering how deep Johnson can reach without saying a single word. Brief Encounter may as well have been a silent film, because you need not hear dialogue in order to step into Laura's mind and soul and being and feel the complicated cocktail of feelings that afflict her. You get chills as the camera eases onto Laura angular face, as she communicates profound senses of longing and heartbreak (I myself felt instant sinking feelings whenever we zoom in on her--she's that good). The film has a simple premise, that of two married folks falling in love, and yet Johnson, in all her subtle, graceful glory, is in complete control, stuffing loaded tales of intricacies within her glances, fleshing out such an interesting character arc for someone who looks so uncomplicated. The looks she serves are accentuated with a posh, soothing narration that can lean towards either unexpectedly amusing ("I wish you were a wise, kind friend, instead of a gossiping acquaintance I've known casually for years and never particularly cared for...I wish you were dead.") or gut-wrenching ("...nothing lasts, really.") This performance as a whole is just one living, breathing, subtle surprise. And isn't that essentially a kind of symbolic metaphor here? Just as Laura is taken completely aback by her love for Alec, we in turn are taken aback by Johnson. You really don't expect to become as distressed as you do. Laura is, in her own words, an "ordinary woman" after all, with a very rudimentary presentation and angular features, a woman who couldn't have imagined becoming so afflicted by such "violent" feelings. How perfectly genius then, that her work should thus create forthcoming 'violent feelings' unto the viewers that watch her. I think that's what makes her so great in this film--that such a prim and proper lady like Johnson could possess such major, unexpected punches in her. I adored getting lost in her eyes and getting lost with her. It's such a shame that Johnson opted out of an enduring career following this film--if this is any hint of her abilities as an actress, just think of what else she could have done!--because this is legacy work.


  1. Living, breathing, subtle surprise is right! I first watched this film solely because I was in my completest mode for the great director David Lean. I didn't know exactly what to expect except that he and Johnson were Oscar nominated for this film so I figured it ought to be pretty good. This is more than just pretty good and Johnson is a revelation. You are so right about her performance, so subtle and heartfelt. She came across like someone I wanted to meet and get to know because it wasn't like she was acting, it was as if Laura really existed...she's so vivid.

    Two other films had a similar impact on me. "I Know Where I'm Going" with Wendy Hiller and Lean's own "Hobson's Choice", with Brenda deBanzie. They both have strong female protagonists who seem quite ordinary at first but then become extraordinary because of life events. These two films, as well as "Brief Encounter", were made in England and are worth seeking out if you ever have the time and chance. They're that good.

    By the way, you'll come across Celia Johnson again when you get to the sixties and Maggie Smith's Oscar win for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". Johnson plays the head mistress of a girl's school in that film and while she's most definitely not someone I'd ever want to meet, she's no less memorable. Happy viewing.

  2. One of my favorite movies and performances of all time :) I totally agree about the narration and her abilities to say so much with her eyes - amazing. The whole performance and movie feels so ahead of the 40s that I was genuinely surprised they were capable of such realism even back then. Don't understand why they chose to do all those schmaltzy and sentimental stuff instead.

    It's a pity she's so underrated, although I loved her small role in Jean Brodie.