THE ASTONISHED HEART: The Flip Side of BRIEF ENCOUNTER
Ah, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter! An achingly realistic portrait of the repressed, thwarted love of Laura and Alec, two grown-ups too fundamentally good and decent to act on feelings that are stronger and deeper than any they have ever known.
Now imagine that Alec had grown sick and tired of being so damn noble and dependable and had given in to his every urge, and to hell with the consequences. That’s pretty much what happens, with dreadful results, in The Astonished Heart, the 1950 film version of Coward’s play.
Even some of the cast of David Lean’s classic show up here three years later—though this time around, Celia Johnson is the betrayed wife rather than the woman who’s tempted to stray. And Joyce Carey is the sympathetic secretary rather than the fussy matron at the railroad lunch counter.
The Astonished Heart began life as part of Coward’s Tonight at 8:30, an anthology of 10 works performed over three nights. Coward starred with Gertrude Lawrence in the original stage production in 1935, and he took over the lead in the film after Michael Redgrave bowed out.
On the rare occasions this movie is discussed at all, the talk usually turns to how miscast Coward was—too fusty and dusty and altogether improbable as Dr. Chris Faber, a renowned, respectable psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with the wild, impetuous Leonora Vail (Margaret Leighton), an old school friend of his wife Barbara (Celia Johnson). But Coward’s discomfort, his awkwardness, is part of what makes the whole thing work for me. This is a man who has lived entirely in his head, viewing passion as a disorder to be diagnosed and cured rather than an emotion to be felt and explored. He believes that to be swept away is to be lost. And for him, that turns out to be tragically true.
As you’d expect from Coward, this is also a keen study—a warning, even—of how horribly things can go wrong when two people take each other for granted and no longer see each other, or even themselves, for everything they truly are.
Early on in the film, Leonora asks Barbara about her husband: “Tell me seriously, do you adore him?” Seeming amused at the very thought, Barbara replies, as if correcting a schoolchild, “I love him very much.” And that’s the end of that.
Later that evening, Chris teases Barbara that she’s welcome to skip a lecture he’s giving: “I can’t be pompous and important with you watching like a sharp, critcal lynx, waiting for me to split an infinitive.” Somewhat alarmed at the portrait he’s painted, she rears back for a moment, and then confides, “Chris… you’re very important to me whether I’m there or not. I just wanted to… suddenly mention it.”
Soon after, Barbara is called away to her mother’s, and Chris steps in as a last-minute substitute to accompany Leonora to the theatre. While they don’t strike any romantic sparks, Leighton and Coward do have an odd chemistry. You can see how this guarded, buttoned-up man would be drawn to such a free spirit, and how she would take it as a personal challenge to loosen him up and win him over. If only it had stayed so playful.
When Barbara returns several weeks later, she discovers the initials “LV” peppered throughout the good doctor’s appointment book. Chris has become deeply involved—a bit moreso than Leonora—and his wife suggests that he take his lover away on a trip to work things through. (Thus defying the more traditional approach of reaching for the nearest, heaviest frying pan, thwacking the errant husband swiftly and repeatedly over the head with it, and digging a large hole in the backyard. But perhaps I’ve said too much.)
The trip ends about as well as you’d expect it to—actually worse. This is all foretold in the opening scene, as the movie unfolds in flashback.
The Astonished Heart was co-directed by Anthony Darnborough and Terence Fisher; the latter went on to become one of Hammer Films’ most prolific horror directors, but little of that crisp pacing is present here. It’s a bit plodding at times: First we’re here. Then we’re here. Now we’re over here. But it was written by Noel Coward and features the luminous, doe-eyed Celia Johnson and the brittle, vulnerable Margaret Leighton. When they made her, the mold simply broke on its own, as it was a bit fragile to begin with.
Actually, Johnson and Leighton have the best chemistry of any two people in the film. If the whole thing had focused on these two gorgeous, elegant, altogether fabulous women getting caught up on their schooldays, I would’ve been perfectly content. Both are in their absolute prime, and Leighton’s sly edginess plays off Johnson’s natural kind-heartedness beautifully. Also featured in the cast, as Chris’s assistant, is Graham Payn, Coward’s real-life companion. How differently he might have written The Astonished Heart today.
The film is a perennial Instant Play on Netflix; I know because I’ve watched it about eleven times. But it could use a little more love. Please give it a look—and then tell me what you think of it!
Here’s a brief preview, but really, watch the whole movie: