Program of films by David Lean

David Lean - British George Cukor

It was not easy being a man seemingly preoccupied with great male
themes (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai), and at the same
time seriously absorbed by female intimate motives (Doctor Zhivago,
Ryan's Daughter).

Laura (Celia Johnson), in the Brief Encounter (1946) by David Lean, is an
ordinary, not exactly young woman, who vegetates in a typical British
marriage without love, friendship or passion. Alec Harvey (Trevor
Howard) is the handsome, funny and successful doctor that she meets every
workday on a train and with whom she experiences a forbidden, but unusually
intense love affair… In her everyday sentimental journeys, Laura observes a
pair: Albert (Stanley Holloway) and Myrtle (Joyce Carey), who, even though they
belong to a lower class and have much more prosaic wants than hers, obviously
manage to satisfy their spiritual, emotional and sexual needs, something that –
and we feel it from the beginning of Laura’s affair – our heroine, in spite of
her undoubtedly present “schőngeist”, will never achieve.

And then, in the middle of what, at a first sight, seems to be a small and
melancholic film about emotional emptiness that destroys the substance of a
British man at the end of the World War 2, something happens which takes your
breath away: in a moment of complete mental crisis, Laura runs out to the train
platform. A train surrounded by steam and noise speeds into the station and the
director David Lean, who by that time does not emphasize any modernist
procedure, leans the camera of Laura’s subjective view and the speeding train,
the station and the platform all twist into one – such an incredibly effective
and smart stylistic figure of Laura’s serious thought of a suicide that it
simply hurts.

Ah film, film... when, for the first time, in the middle of 70’s, I saw Lean’s
Brief Encounter, I was a young film critic who sought inspiration by
watching Goddard, Hawks, Warhol and Bauer in Kinoteka, the Hollywood
young and rising generation, Sergio Leone and kung fu films in theaters. That
wise and bitter scene made me fall in love, truly and deeply, with the Brief
, David Lean, Celia Johnson and film in general. At that time
seemed to me to be a great art film, (I still think that), maybe
the best one I have ever seen; with its serious, subdued or subversive
micro-ambitions, it is perhaps be even greater than Citizen Kane. That
film-champion of the black and white era, Welles’s masterpiece, also deals with
human loneliness and emptiness behind pompous society systems and constructions.
Ah, film, film...

Later on, I saw all Lean’s films many times and as an eager follower of the
theory of film by Truffaut and his friends from the Cahiers de
and those brilliant guys from the British Movie, in my
articles resented Lean for his lack of individual style, his pompous and
sometimes pathetic commercialization among other things. But Brief Encounter
always made me look for typical Lean-like motives in the best works by this
outstanding filmmaker: simultaneous admiration and outrage by typical British
authority (Hobson's choice), all of the beauty and the terror of national
fetishes that he, unlike many others, lived with and knew well, but at the same
time deeply scorned.

Certainly it was not easy being the “British George Cukor”, a man seemingly
preoccupied with great male themes (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai), and at the same time seriously absorbed by female
intimate motives (Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter). After the amazing
Brief Encounter
, the “female” Lean has never been so direct as in
Hobsonov izbor
(1954): Brenda De Banzie is a shoemaker’s daughter who,
together with her two sisters, endures the incredible tyranny of her father
Hobson (the great Charles Laughton). Her rebellion against the British/male
machismo is so impressive that it can be regarded as Lean’s manifesto, as can
some parts of Madeleine (1950), a chronicle of a true story of Madeleine
Smith, who in the middle of 19th century Glasgow, calmly murdered her unbearable

The propagandistic In which we serve (1942), which he directed together
with his life long friend and collaborator Noel Coward – a genius homosexual
writer who came up with some of the best ideas in the film Brief Encounter
– certainly is not a female film: marines who suffer and adore their war boat,
HMS Torrin, as a fetish, represent one of the strangest ideas of war-propaganda
films ever financed by a national war machine. The “female question” brought
David Lean the best and worst moments of his career: Ryan’sDaughter
(1970) was cut to pieces by critics, all of them writing about a “washed up
commercial genius of the 60’s”. Disappointed and broken down, Lean did not make
a film for the next 14 years!

And then – a miracle. Or not? Passage to India (1984), a magnificent,
in-depth adaptation of the great novel by Foster, again with Lean in top shape
and with all his reasons for a film: a costumed spectacle, destinies of
women, unbearable civilization, strictness of British culture… A masterpiece
after which he could calmly die… Unfortunately he did not succeed in realizing
what he had prepared for years (he died in 1991): to make an adaptation of
Conrad’s Nostromo, a film I would gladly give up my film critics ID card
to be able to see it, even if it were in hell…(Vladimir Tomic)