Classic Review: Celia Johnson

Words by Naomi Jeffreys

Film stars nowadays have their breakthrough film, a blockbuster, a brilliant independent film which pushes them to reveal something about themselves to the audience. But then, they become stars, part of the Hollywood clique, they become changed, often choosing films simply for the money, and not for the script or the director.

But Celia Johnson, who is perhaps best known for her starring role as Mrs Laura Jesson in David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). A middle class housewife, with two children and a loving husband. Who finds when she meets Dr Alec Harvey at the train station, that she  falls, hopelessly, unwittlingly in love with Dr Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard, above) who is also married, in turn,  her small world is turned upside down.

This was to be Johnson’s defining role, she has the weight of the film on her shoulders. And Lean uses her to the fullest extent. Often panning in to her wide, expressive eyes. As she narrates her own life (talking, confessing, if she could to her husband, Fred Jesson who is played by Cyril Raymond). Johnson’s angst, heartache and her utter Britishness. Her characters desire to do what is good and true, to remain with her husband she no longer loves, for the sake of her children, the future.

Brief Encounter was based on the one act play Still Life by Noel Coward. And was directed by David Lean. Both director and writer championed Celia Johnson as one of the best actresses around at the time. She had already starred in two of Noel Coward’s films, This Happy Breed (1944) and In Which We Serve (1942).

Throughout her life Johnson always doubted her ability to act. But with gentle reassurance and excellent direction from the Croydon born David Lean. Brief Encounter was to be a true British classic. And which cemented Celia Johnson as one of the last in the Golden Era of cinema. The film’s soundtrack is primarily Piano Concerto No. 2 by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Which was apparently suggested by Noel Coward. It is hard to imagine the film without this music. It matches the angst which Mrs Jesson feels, towards the man she truly loves, Dr Alec Harvey and the duty towards her husband and her children.

Celia Johnson, an actress who had a fruitful career, both on stage and on screen. Is perhaps forgotten amongst the more well known Golden Era actors, such as Donna Reed, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Haworth, Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor to name but a few. But, in my opinion, Celia Johnson’s quiet determination to act, her own family duties, her unwillingness to enter in to the Hollywood lifestyle. Makes her, a true veteran of the Golden Era cinema age.

Brief Encounter relied upon Johnson’s delivery, in which the audience hears her thoughts, her feelings. And her desire to tell her husband the truth, which she knows she can never tell. Here are a couple of quotes:

“But, oh, Fred, I’ve been so foolish. I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people. ”

“There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days. ”

It feels appropriate to end this piece with the films most famous quote:

“I love you. I love your wide eyes, the way you smile, your shyness, and the way you laugh at my jokes. ”

Thank you Celia Johnson, for this moving performance, which has endured through the ages.


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