Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Movies

Brief Encounter (1945): I have a penchant for movies about doomed love; after all, among my ten favorite films of all time are Vertigo, Casablanca, La Jetée and Kal Ho Naa Ho. So I'm not sure why it took me so long to see this David Lean-directed classic. Perhaps I wasn't ready to see it until now; I do think that to fully appreciate this film it helps to be at least as old as its protagonists (who seem to be in their mid-30s). I'm just glad I didn't let any more time go by.

The story is taken from Noel Coward's play "Still Life": a man and a woman (Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson) meet in a railway station cafe every week at the same time. Their casual encounters for movie-watching and window shopping soon deepen into love—only, both of them are married and have children. If you're thinking, "This can't end well," you're right.

The film is filled with wonderful scenes. Probably the most excruciating is when on a rainy night the couple winds up together at the apartment of an absent friend, and seem to be on the verge of consummating their affair, only to have the friend return unexpectedly. And the couple's final parting, interrupted by an oblivious, chattering busybody, is agonizing.

Brief Encounter is beautifully photographed, and Robert Krasker's stunning black and white cinematography is gorgeously rendered in the Criterion Collection DVD transfer. Another striking element of the film is the score: Rachmaninoff's sweepingly romantic Piano Concerto No. 2 ebbs and swells through virtually every scene. (Cleverly, the music has a diegetic origin: the film is largely told in flashback, and a radio is playing the piece in the background of the frame story). Having a single piece of music so closely intertwined with the story was a technique later used by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo, with Bernard Herrmann's variations on Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Curiously, the conductor of the Vertigo soundtrack, Muir Matheson, also conducted the Rachmaninoff score of Brief Encounter (Eileen Joyce was the soloist).

But what makes the film so memorable is the extraordinary performance of Celia Johnson as Laura, the suburban housewife who unexpectedly discovers in Howard's Alec a final chance at passionate love—only to find herself incapable of the necessary cruelty and selfishness to seize it. Johnson's face, which looks almost plain from some angles and classically beautiful from others, registers every nuance of her self-condemnation. A masterpiece of thwarted desire.

Mädchenjahre einer Königin/Victoria in Dover (aka The Story of Vickie, 1954): A young girl discovers that she's really a queen, meets her Prince Charming, and they live happily ever after. It's the stuff of fairy tales, but it really happened to Alexandrina Victoria of Kent, who at the age of 18 became Queen Victoria.

In Victoria in Dover the young queen is portrayed by the even younger Romy Schneider, who was only 16 when the film was made. Schneider is utterly delightful as a teenager who suddenly has to negotiate her way through the minefields of power. Amazingly (as I discovered after the film) pretty much all of the details of her early reign as portrayed in the film are historically based, in particular her mother's attempt, in league with her lover Sir John Conroy, to seize control and reign through her daughter.

Only the incident that gives the film its English title is fictional. Victoria is being pressured to marry, and has already seen (and rejected) two of the three suitors selected for her. The only one she hasn't yet met is Prince Albert. Sick of the intrigues at court, Victoria decides to flee in disguise to spend a few days in Paris. When she reaches Dover she stays overnight at an inn while waiting for the next boat to Calais. Staying at the same inn is a dashing young man who introduces her to waltzing and both literally and figuratively sweeps her off her feet.*

Of course, we can see where this is going, but director Ernst Marischka gets us there charmingly and with a deft comic touch. And Schneider is simply radiant. She went on to become famous in the Sissi trilogy, another real-life fairy tale directed by Marischka; if the Sissi trilogy is as delightful as Victoria in Dover it will be wonderful indeed.

More Favorites of 2011: Bollywood, Books, Music, and Television


* Historically, Victoria really was smitten with Albert; she wrote to her uncle Leopold, "He possesses every quality that could be desired to render me perfectly happy. He is so sensible, so kind, and so good, and so amiable too. He has besides the most pleasing and delightful exterior and appearance you can possibly see." In her diary, she confided that she found him "extremely handsome," with "a beautiful nose and a very sweet mouth with fine teeth; but the charm of his countenance is his expression, which is most delightful." They had a happy marriage by all accounts, and Victoria gave birth to nine children. She was devastated when Albert died of typhoid in 1861, nearly 22 years after their marriage.


  1. Stayed up late to watch the end of this film.If you like old grand movies with a touch of light hearted humour then this one will please.Don't worry about the subtitles,you get used to them and the voices are a good part of the character of the film.

  2. Thanks for your comment on Victoria in Dover, Anonymous. We did have a chance to watch the Sissi trilogy, and for me lightning did not strike twice. Partly, I think, it's because the trilogy takes virtually the same content as Victoria in Dover—a young woman finding love and taking on the mantle of power—and spreads it over three films. As a result the trilogy is slower-paced and the humor seems more forced. Not to mention that this series of films extolling the beneficence of a Germanic empire was made only a decade after World War II. The films get better as the trilogy goes on, but I can't really recommend them, even though the young Romy Schneider is radiant.