Mary (Ann Todd) is in a loveless marriage to wealthy banker Howard (Claude Rains), but on holiday in Switzerland she finds herself in the next room to her former love, a biologist called Steven (Trevor Howard). Is that wedding bells she hears? Or just cow bells?
Directed by David Lean, based on a story by H.G. Wells, it bears many similarities with Lean’s Brief Encounter, made four years earlier. Largely told in flashback, it features a fleeting but passionate romance between two people who are married to others, and yet the characters are likeable in spite of this.
But The Passionate Friends has a more up-market feel, taking place in mansions, upper class parties and against a backdrop of the Swiss Alps, instead of a small Northern town and an ordinary train station. It’s also not as romantic as Brief Encounter with Mary’s utilitarian marriage to a wealthy businessman feeling like less of a barrier to overcome, despite Howard’s objections.
Yet Lean exceeds himself on cinematography, with one scene even appearing to have been filmed on the top of a mountain, and his attention to detail remains exceptional, particularly in the large crowd scenes. The result is a leisurely romance which is enjoyable and well executed, even if it doesn’t arouse the passions of Brief Encounter.