A bored housewife (Celia Johnson) encounters a handsome doctor (Trevor Howard) at the train station in the appropriately named Milford. But these acquaintances on a train have a profound effect on one another, despite the brevity of their encounter.
This simple story is expertly told by Lean, from a screenplay by Noël Coward (who’s also heard as the station announcer) based on his own play, Still Life. The structure has a Rashomon-esque repeated scene which we read completely differently at the beginning and end of the film, and there’s an enjoyable sub-plot featuring the waitress in the train station refreshment room and her flirtations with the train guard, acting as a kind of working class counterpoint to the middle class love story.
The sensitive performances of Johnson and Howard make their stumble into mutual obsession feel completely unavoidable. This avoids making the the pair (who are both married to other people) unlikable, alienating the audience and turning it from Brief Encounter to Close Encounters.
And once again Lean shows his perfectionism, keeping the film on track and adding a level of detail that makes a fairly straightforward story continuously interesting. He also makes brilliant use of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, acting as a leitmotif for the unfortunate couple. The result is one of the best films based around trains ever. Yes, even better than Snowpiercer.