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Brief Encounter and Falling in Love – a story simplified and continued

Discussing David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) is often conclusive to mentioning its remakes: Brief Encounter produced by Carlo Ponti in 1973 and the 1984 version Falling in Love directed by Ulu Grosbard. All three are beautiful, perhaps even text-book examples, of how a film or a story can develop through time, different cultural approaches, of how different aspects of a certain story are brought into focus at different times by different people, how different techniques are used, and ultimately, why one decides to make a remake rather than an ‘original’ film.To show that a remake is not merely a copy but that it is an original piece of work, I am only going to focus on the original Lean’s Brief Encounter and on the last version Falling in Love. Moreover, the comparison of the two will show that the remake is largely culturally influenced and that the story itself may be changed to a great extent.First of all, the most apparent reason why remakes happen is economic – a remake as a ‘presold’ property. And yet, we must bear in mind that the remaker must also believe that particular story still inspires what Ira Konigsberg calls “another attempt to get it right.” Therefore there also has to be a basic intuition that the audience will continue to buy this story in its new incarnation because the underlying fable is still compelling. And looking at it from this point of view, the story in Brief Encounter is surely a story that, if not appreciated by most, was surely talked about by most. Similarly, the 1945 version was a film that was strongly criticised when shown again twenty years later in England, and also one of the few British films at that time that was successful in America. Surely, these are the reasons why it has been remade twice, most probably because the directors tried “to get it right.” But to say that we have to consider the aesthetic value of the original and examine why it has been criticised by the British audience in the 1960s so much.The plotline, based on Noel Coward’s play Still Lives is a simple one: Laura Jessop is a middle-class married woman with a boring cross-word addicted husband and two children, who takes a train to a nearby town Milford every Thursday to do her weekly shopping and go to the library. She spends the whole day in Milford, has lunch, goes to see a film and then has a cup of tea at the station cafeteria before she takes the train home. Coincidentally, she meets Alec, a doctor who works at the hospital in Milford, and they start seeing each other. They fall in love and most of the film is focused on Laura’s terrible feeling of guilt. The romance is ended when Alec goes away to Africa with his family and Laura returns to her husband to live her life the way she did before she had met Alec. In Falling in Love the plotline is similar, with some, at first sight, minor changes, the biggest difference being the end, where the main characters are united. And yet, the differences between the two versions are huge.To begin with, let us examine character portrayal and emotional reactions of the characters in the two versions. In Lean’s Brief Encounter both protagonists are upper middle-class, with RP accents, obsessed with morality and constantly tormented by their immense feeling of guilt – even before they do anything that could be considered morally wrong. Laura even feels that her son’s accident is a punishment for her because she spent the day having lunch and going to the cinema with Alec. And when Alec confesses he loves her, she keeps on repeating that they must be sensible. Nevertheless, apart from the scenes where they kiss, they have no other physical contact – they are not really lovers. And yet Laura is so tormented by the feeling of guilt and so ashamed due to her breaking the decency code that she is in the end internally completely destructed by it. This, however, did not convince the audience in 1965. The audience felt that the lovers were far too strained, guilty and therefore cold and that Alec’s boyish shame at anything physical and Laura’s cold sensibility implied frigidity and her inability to actually love rather than reactions of two nice people who only do what is morally right. Thus the comment in 1965 was: “The English make tea, not love.”Personally, I cannot agree with that. Despite the fact that Alec and Laura actually do not make love, this is a film full of emotions and these emotions are, indeed, extremely well presented. And all thanks to the brilliant technique David Lean used. After the opening scene in which the lovers appear as mere background figures in the station cafeteria, the film adopts fully the perspective of the heroine – Laura – who then relives the whole romance through a series of flashbacks. Thus the whole story is narrated through her inner monologue. And this inner monologue is the tool that brings the audience closer to the heart of the story, it helps them to understand her feeling and pain, which, if not narrated this way, would appear only as banal details and insignificant dialogues. But this sympathetic portrayal of the inner tensions of the characters marks this film as an absolute masterpiece. Thus, this film is a proof of how the way something is presented may be more important than the actual actions and events.Moreover, another proof of how the way things are presented gives meaning to the film is the remake Falling in Love. A similar story line in Falling in Love is presented in a linear way, with no inner monologues – everything that is felt by the characters is said to their friends or not shown at all. The result of this is that the main characters in Falling in Love, Margaret Gilmore (Molly) played by Meryl Streep and Frank Raftis played by Robert De Niro, appear to be passive, indecisive and less ‘real’. It is as though they are two people being involved in a love affair by a coincidence.And indeed, in this film coincidences are its weakest point. There are simply too many of them, Throughout the opening of the film the two main characters appear in the same locations (the train, public telephones at the station, the shopping centre, the book shop) but do not run into each other and do not know each other. Furthermore, they do not even notice each other until they bump into each other at the bookshop and by accident take each other’s books instead of theirs. Later on they see each other again on a train a few months later. It is true that the main characters meet by coincidence in Brief Encounter as well but these are more plausible and thus what follows is less transparent, whereas in Falling in Love the viewers are robbed of all suspense, since they know some connection between the two people being on the same places all the time will inevitably happen anyway.And when they finally do meet there is a significant change of the original story in that that their significant others both find out about the relationship. As a result both of their marriages end and the two families are destroyed. In Brief Encounter nothing of that kind happens. Alec goes away and Laura returns home like every Thursday. No one ever finds out about his or her ‘affair’ and it is over anyway. There is not even a hint that they might ever see each other again in the future. It is all a story of the past. It is also a story that hurt no one but Laura and Alec. But in Falling in Love the lovers go further. Their affair has consequences, other people get hurt because of it. Even when it seems the affair is over, and they are unable to keep their families together, in the end, after one year, at the same time (Christmas time), they coincidentally meet again in the same bookshop and later on Frank runs to the train, where Molly and him are happily united.The fact that this happens on a train has a symbolic meaning, since the train in Falling in Love is what has brought them together in the first place. It was the train that prevented Molly from seeing Frank for the last time before he left to Houston and finally it brings them together again. The symbol of the train in Brief Encounter is different. The lovers do not take the same train like Molly and Frank do, and the times when their trains leave every Thursday are the times of goodbyes. Therefore, the train is more of a factor taking them apart rather than bringing them together. Moreover, taking a train in Brief Encounter is a usual thing to do, whereas in Falling in Love both protagonists do it because their cars do not work (a coincidence being that it happens at the same time).Finally, I would like to point out that by trying to present the lives of the main characters in Falling in Love in a more detailed way, the romance itself as well as the lovers as crucial figures in the affair are poorly portrayed. In Falling in Love we learn a lot more about Molly and Frank’s families, their relatives, friends and their work but the consequence is that their feelings are not the central focus of the story. Or perhaps we just do not see them. Despite the fact that they talk about them to their friends these feelings do not seem strong enough, or ‘real’ enough. Maybe this is because they say everything that is, conversely, presented through Laura’s inner thoughts in Brief Encounter, but their words express too little. Similarly, the scenes with their families, Molly’s father and their friends that take the focus point off the lovers, whereas in Brief Encounter we only see Laura’s husband and children a few times. The same goes for her and Alec’s friends and we never see any of Alec’s colleagues or his family – they only talk about these things. In Falling in Love, on the other hand, the centre of attention is dispersed and thus the only thing that remains is a simple linear story of two people who meet, fall in love, have problems because of it but eventually end up together. Falling in Love definitely does not concentrate only on feelings of guilt and shame. As a matter of a fact it does not deal with emotions as the major topic at all.Even the music, which is usually a device stressing emotions, does not serve that purpose in Falling in Love. It is light, cheerful, instrumental, so that we barely notice it and has neither special effect nor any symbol. In Brief Encounter, on the other hand, music was carefully selected. It is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto Number Two, which is listened to, and gets louder according to how intense Laura’s feelings are. In addition, it is a famous piece of music known for how difficult it is to play and also known as one of the most passionate and emotional concertos, which adds to the symbolism of the film.Obviously, the two versions differ in many ways and in my opinion Falling in Love is a simplified version of Brief Encounter with certain changes that are culturally as well as historically based. It is logical that the situations as well as trains and the stations in Falling in Love are different since the setting was the eighties in the USA and also there is no stress on social class since this could not be an issue in the American film of that time. And perhaps this is a remake, which meant to be entirely different from the original, as far as the plotline, character portrayal and technique are concerned, for it has a different title as well. And looking at it from that point of view, we can see that the films and the titles bear an important meaning: in Brief Encounter the story is actually only about an encounter which was brief and so was the affair which ended as fast as an encounter. But in Falling in Love we see the process of two people gradually developing feelings for each other and in a way we can see the denoument, in a way a positive continuation of Lean’s story, which was sad and dark. Falling in Love, however, is a happy, sunny fairy-tale with a happy end.

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