David Lean is probably best known for large-scale super productions like Bridge on the Rive Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), and this is of course not without due reason; these, especially Lawrence, are tremendous films. But when you look at Lean’s body of work you see that there was so much more to his career than these massive, sweeping works of grandeur. Before he became primarily associated with Hollywood achievement (Kwai and Lawrence would both win him Best Director Oscars), Lean directed a number of more unassuming pictures that, in many ways, are even more remarkable.
While these later films were all international co-productions, it’s some of Lean’s strictly British work that is really striking on a more emotional and deeply resonant level. Lawrence for sheer spectacle, excitement and scope is hard to rival, but films like This Happy Breed (1944) and Brief Encounter (1945) strike at the heart, and at the soul.
Both films were based on plays by Noel Coward, and both star Celia Johnson. In the former, Johnson plays mother to three children and wife to Robert Newton. The film follows her family over the course of 20 tumultuous years between the two World Wars. There are family squabbles, issues with the kids growing up and whatnot, confrontations with death on one hand and the joys of marriage on the other, and there are the general stresses of everyday life. The glorious thing about This Happy Breed is the way Lean and the performers quickly establish the locale and the characters then set us off on a touching and profoundly authentic whirlwind of real life drama. We’re with this family for a short time in terms of film duration (not quite two hours) but we rapidly cover so much territory and so many poignant situations that by the end our relationship to the whole gang is considerable. They are average folks and they are delightful. There’s not really a single character we don’t care for, and there’s nary a moment that passes that doesn’t hold some sort of significance for them, us, and the bond developed between the film and audience. Each sequence steadily adds to the impact of the film’s entirety, so that by the end we feel like we’ve been with them every step of the way, at a level of intimacy more notable than most cinematic dramas.
Similarly, Brief Encounter is also about average and perfectly genuine people in an average and perfectly genuine situation. Here love, more than the grandness of life in total, is the cause for dramatic tension and identification. Johnson is the happily married Laura Jesson. But is she really happy? A chance meeting with Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) sends her emotions reeling. She loves her husband; they don’t really have any major domestic issues. But this brief encounter becomes something she never could have imagined. Indeed, she probably never dared. He too is married, but they continue to meet several times. The temptation to have a full-fledged illicit affair grows and grows. They are truly smitten with each other, but it’s complicated. They are also decent and devoted spouses. So what to do? Unlike many films that deal with marital infidelity, including many of those made today, nothing here seems exceptionally tawdry. These are genuinely good people. We can understand their relationship and their dilemma. They are so happy together we see how it’s difficult to conclude this ever-evolving relationship. Brief Encounter is also a beautiful film to watch. Shot by Robert Krasker (who would photograph Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) and Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) – two other gorgeous looking movies), the images only add to the dream state of the characters. For Laura, this is exactly what’s it’s like – a dream, a fantasy. But can it be real, can she ever really leave her husband, or is this love only to be a fleeting one? Will she eventually just wake up? Either way, it’s extraordinarily romantic.
While we certainly care for the characters in the trio of films mentioned above (Peter O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence is one of the most appealing screen characters of all time), David Lean’s true gift as far as creating individuals who invite strong and immediate association is most evident in these earlier movies. The world of the later pictures is magnificent and arresting, but the world in these others is more comprehensible and reasonable and easier to relate to. I’m not especially well-informed on David Lean’s biography, so I can’t say where this turning point in film aesthetic occurred, or why. Perhaps we saw a sign of things to come in Summertime (1955), with its exotic setting and lush cinematography. Films made just before this production were somewhat more practical and reserved, films like the hilarious Hobson's Choice (1954) and even the literary adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). Maybe it’s just the natural evolution of an artist. Lean broadens his scope of subject matter and in doing so naturally expands his creative canvas. What’s extraordinary is that he skillfully handles both so well.
Ultimately what matters though, is that one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers made film after film of tremendous quality and impact. Even with two Oscars and with the global fame of at least two of his more than 15 feature films, I still think “underrated” aptly describes Lean and his work. Everyone should see Lawrence of Arabia, there’s no question about that, but for completely different reasons, all just as imperative, everyone should also seek out This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter, two delightfully powerful dramas that have lingered in my mind long after my initial viewings.