'I didn't think such violent things

could happen to ordinary people':

Family and Love in

The Stars Look Down and Brief Encounter.

Steven Russell

Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk






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Brief Encounter.The ideology of 1930s, pre-war and 1940s, post-war cinemas reflect, however overtly or covertly, the importance of ideology at wartime. The Stars Look Down (1939) directed by Carol Reed and Brief Encounter (1945) directed by David Lean book-ended the Second World War. Both films present a commentary on a home-front ideology that reflect social turmoil that was approaching at the time of The Stars Look Down and had just passed at the time of Brief Encounter.  Both revolve around a couple, one married and one extra-marital, and it is these relationships, their manifestation and progression, that personify the message communicated on the ideology of love, of romance and the family.  The work of Lean and Reed is warranted special mention as two of three Postwar Masters' of British cinema (the third being Alfred Hitchcock) in Mast and Kawin's A Short History of the Movies. Their films are viewed as part of the British cinema's postwar sub-genre of 'tightly edited, intelligently written contemporary dramas.' (Mast/Kawin, 2000, p. 380). Both films present drama to the audience, although the difference between the tragic drama of The Stars Look Down and the emotional drama of Brief Encounter epitomise the difference between pre- and post-war cinema.  The Stars Look Down is filled with the desire for social climbing, the desire to continue working in the coal mines, the desire for love and of faith, that is misplaced within the ‘system’.  Brief Encounter demonstrates a post-war abandon that sees a wife sacrifice time with her children for another woman’s husband and the husband who has to leave his country in order to sever ties with another man’s wife. The similarities, however, include the theme of the family, of infidelity, the irrational actions by intelligent men (Davey and Alec) and the redefinition of the female and her role within relationships.

Joe Gowlan.It is in The Stars Look Down that we see evidence of the subversion of the family and feminine, especially in the character of Jenny. She lives in in Tynecastle with her mother, she meets Joe Gowlan who is living in a boarding house. Her family situation lacks a father figure and throughout the narrative we see Jenny play her two potential father figures, Davey and Joe, off  each other. She desires Joe's personality and Davey's potential social standing; she accompanies Joe to the Percy Grille restaurant; with Davey to a university lecture on the privatisation of coal mines. It is with Davey that she initiates a socially acceptable relationship but Joe who she engages in an extra-marital affair with, this infidelity  links her to Laura in Brief Encounter. Outwardly, Jenny and Davey appear to have a nice house, Davey Fenwick.with Davey's parents marvelling at their drawing room.  Davey is educated and has a good job but Jenny cheats on him and is an alcoholic (the port bottle is empty when Davey offers his mother a drink).  This is comparable to the subversion we see in Brief Encounter, both films constructing a family that is seen as unsuccessful and inefficient, characteristics that reflect the ideology of the time. Both families have a cheating wife. Both have an academically-minded husband (see Fred in Brief Encounter). The extra-marital husband proves himself to be thrifty and successful but not necessarily moral, as they engage in the affair.

Jenny.The only 'official' family we see in The Stars Look Down is the Fenwick's. Father Bob starts by initiating a strike and being despised by many members of the mining community, especially when he is taken to prison following the robbery of a butcher's shop. Mother Martha is over-sentimental and judgemental of Jenny (despite the fact that we see her to be the bad wife that she is). They are contrasted by the fact that Martha brings round broth to Davey, as opposed to Jenny who brings a cake; broth is infinitely less luxurious but more nutritious. Son Hughie is immaturely escapist, commenting on how lovely the oysters look for breakfast, when all that is on the table is a loaf of bread. He is forever chasing his dream of playing football but misses the chance when he is trapped in the mine as it floods. Davey, as we have already seen, suffers at the hands of a cheating wife and, despite his passion and intelligence in fighting the cause of the miners, his attempt to stop Scupper Flats from opening is crushed by bureaucracy and he fails to save his father and brother. It is this household that, as noted by Higson in his article 'Re-constructing the nation: This Happy Breed, 1944', indicates that 'the home is remarked upon not as a feminine space but as a national metaphor' (Higson, 1994 In: Dixon (ed), 1994, p. 68).  If we take the Fennick family as indicative of the nation, at a time when it was clear that war was imminent, we see evidence of the crisis of identity; of the role of mother, of the 'use' of education, industry and politics. And, as we have seen above, there are flaws in the family structure.

The main ambiguity of Brief Encounter is that, despite being released just months after the end of the largest war in history, we never learn when it is set. We may assume it is set before the war as we do not see the bombed buildings we may expect of London or Liverpool, or we may assume it is set after the war as, quite plainly, this is when it was released. Regardless of the construction of the text, it's time of release would mean it is forever destined to be consumed by a post-World War Two society and it's meaning reflects the ideology possessed by a society that has passed through the inevitable upheaval. The main couple of Alec and Laura are both British (distinctly so as they incessantly drink tea) and both married, although not to each other. We see their relationship develop as a subverted marriage. We learn Alec has a wife and two sons and we see Laura's home, husband Fred and her two children Margaret (Henrietta Vintcent) and Bobbie (Richard Thomas). It is the subverted marriage, the brief encounter of the title, that represents an ideology different to that we would expect.  At a time of war, we can see an emphasis placed upon the family yet in Brief Encounter we see the exact opposite; a couple, seemingly happy in their respective marriages, meeting and falling in love.

Brief Encounter.It is the details of their encounter that portray it as subservient to the respectable and socially-accepted (although not necessarily successful) marriages Laura and Alec are engaged in. Alec and Laura meet in a train station, inextricably linking their relationship to a place inherent with moving and travelling, yet their trains home leave in opposite directions. Milford Station is also the location of Laura's suicide attempt; we see her face, brightly lit and in high contrast, as she fails to jump in front of a train as it screams past. It is the incessant atmosphere of shrill whistles and especially the abundance of smoke that connotes the train station as hell. Yet it is the train station where Alec and Laura share their first kiss, albeit hidden and subterranean, in the tunnel between his platform and her platform. We see the majority of their relationship take place in enclosed spaces; the train station tea room, the Kardomah, various cars, the boatman's hut Stephen's flat and, most crucially, the cinema. It is this darkened location where Alec and Laura visit twice and it seems to hold indications and warnings of their relationship; a trailer they watch states "'Flames of Passion', coming shortly", which is applicable to them. The next week, following a Donald Duck cartoon and before the film begins, Alec says 'No more laughter, prepare for tears', almost a warning to Laura and himself.

A pro-family ideology is further subverted when we see Laura's home life; the time we share with her at home, whilst she re-tells her story, she spends sitting opposite her husband but thinking of Alec. It is perhaps the ultimate cheat that Laura outlines the story that we subsequently see in a linear narrative, presented to us as a full motion picture, yet all the time Laura gazes at her husband, re-telling the story to the audience when both she and us know it should be Fred who hears it. We never see Fred take care of the children and we never learn what his job is or if he even has one, all we see is that he is epitomised by the crosswords he does every night, methodical, logical and contained. It is his character that is juxtaposed with Alec, an intelligent (a doctor) and enterprising (going to work in South Africa) man.

It is the characters of the two wives, Jenny and Laura, that seek to comment upon the role of the female within the two films. It seems of interest that, in Brief Encounter, the tale of extra-marital affairs is not presented from a stereotyped, misogynist viewpoint of the male but from the point of view of the female. All that we learn of the infidelity is from Laura. Despite the fact that she constructs the brief encounter as love as opposed to lust, we see her spend time with Alec at the expense of her children, made worse when her son is hit by a car. In The Stars Look Down, we again see that it is Jenny who initiates her affair with Joe Gowlan, after gazing longingly out of the window at his car. We see the subversion of the marriage epitomised by affairs in both films and in both films, the affair is carried out for the benefit of the female. This promotes the construction of an anti-family ideology from the point-of-view of a wife and, in Brief Encounter, a mother.

It is possible, despite looking at the encoding of the separate texts, to draw a line between the two films, as representative of pre- and post-war society, where we see that 'a significant shift occurred at the end of the war from a concern with the public sphere, serviced by documentaries and wartime propaganda, to a fascination with the private sphere, the world of subjectivity and states of mind' (Petrie, p. 224 In: Orr & Taxidou (eds.), 2000).  This is demonstrated by the difference between The Stars Look Down, a public documentary as demonstrated by it's subject matter of coal mines, and Brief Encounter, a private account of an affair as demonstrated by the interior monologue of Laura that serves as narration to what is essentially a story inside her head. 

Viewed together, they also demonstrate the emphasis upon ideology that itself resulted from the ideology of wartime film-making; 'with a handful of exceptions, the war as a topic did disappear from British films'  (Rattigan, 1994.  In: Dixon (ed), 1994, p. 145).  We do not see evidence of the coming (as with The Stars Look Down) or going (Brief Encounter) of World War Two as a topic but as a theme; clues as to the state of war are seen in both films, without actually seeing the war; the social panic at the time of the strike in The Stars Look Down, the unhappiness manifested as infidelity in Brief Encounter, the unbridgeable culture divide between Davey's passion and intelligence and Jenny's desire for social acceptance in The Stars Look Down.  It is perhaps the 'mingled feelings of elation and fatalism' (Hunter, 1996, p. 45) of Brief Encounter that best tell us that the narrative is inextricably linked to the war, by feelings and attitudes, not actions and events.


Higson, A. (1994) 'Re-Constructing the Nation: This Happy Breed, 1944'.  In: Dixon, W. W. (Ed) (1994) Re-Viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992: Essays and Interviews.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Hunter, A. (Ed) (1996) Book of Movie Classics.  Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean.

Mast, G. & Kawin, B. F. (2000) A Short History of the Movies.  Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Petrie, D. (2000) 'Neo-Expressionism and British Cinematography: the work of Duncan Krasker and Jack Cardiff'.  In: Orr, J. & Taxidou, O. (eds.) (2000) Post-war Cinema and Modernity: A Film Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd.

Rattigan, N. (1994) 'The Last Gasp of the Middle Class: British War Films of the 1950s'.  In: Dixon, W. W. (Ed) (1994) Re-Viewing British Cinema, 1900-1992: Essays and Interviews.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

The Stars Look Down (1939) Carol Reed.


For information about the making of and locations used for The Stars Look Down visit:

For information about the making of and locations used for Brief Encounter visit:
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