In a poll by Time Out London of "101 industry experts," David Leanís Brief Encounter of 1945 has been voted the most romantic film ever ó in spite, says Matilda Battersby of The Independent, of its having "no sex and no happy ending." In fact, the movieís extreme romanticism ó echoing that of Rachmaninoffís second piano concerto which accompanies so much of it ó is more likely because there is no sex or happy ending. The same would be true, more or less, for the first six of the top ten on Time Outís list (after Brief Encounter they are Casablanca, In the Mood for Love, Annie Hall, Harold and Maude and Brokeback Mountain), in all of which the lovers must part. And even in numbers seven through ten (The Apartment, A Matter of Life and Death, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Punch Drunk Love) at the end of which they are together, the happiness of the united pair is shadowed by doubt or other emotional hangover from those moviesí darker sides. Itís a reminder that most of the greatest of classic romances from the pre-cinematic era ó Abelard and Eloise, Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet ó are also tragic.
But perhaps the most remarkable name on the list is that of Brokeback Mountain ó at least it is remarkable in the light of number one, for Brokeback Mountain and Brief Encounter are opposites. This is not because one is straight and the other gay, but because they take opposite points of view of that which keeps the lovers apart in both. Tim Stanley of the London Sunday Telegraph writes that "the themes are as old as art itself," because "in both stories, love is denied by convention and conscience." But this is not to notice the difference between convention and conscience as they are presented in the two films, made more than sixty years apart. In Brief Encounter, conscience and convention are celebrated, in Brokeback Mountain they are despised as amounting to little more than inhibition and emotional "repression."
In historical terms, of course, the difference is perfectly understandable. The war had helped to make emotional repression not only acceptable but necessary. Some of the consequences were memorably limned for us by Mike Leigh in Vera Drake of 2004. I think Mr Leigh takes a less censorious view of repression, and understands it better than Ang Lee does in Brokeback Mountain, but neither man has any time for the predominantly moral view of it taken by David Leanís film, nor for the conscientious scruples about fidelity to their respective spouses which are all that keep Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard apart in Brief Encounter. As his other wartime film In Which We Serve suggests, duty was still of far more importance to Noel Coward, the gay man who wrote the play (Still Life) on which Brief Encounter was based, than its emotional consequences. To him, the lovers were heroic for keeping themselves apart, not mere victims of a convention which they hadnít the courage to defy. Itís such a huge difference, when you think about it, that if Brief Encounter is highly romantic, Brokeback Mountain must be unromantic, and vice versa.