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'Noel Coward's Brief Encounter' makes a film critic cringe

We live in an age of artistic appropriation. Recording artists freely "sample" music created by other people, visual artists stretch the concept of "fair use" to create art from photographs they did not take, and a young novelist in Germany was unconcerned when pages of someone else's writing were found in her own novel. "There is no such thing as originality," she said, "just authenticity."

By those standards, what the British theater group Kneehigh has done to David Lean's classic romantic melodrama "Brief Encounter" is mild indeed. More than that, as running at the impressive Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, "Noel Coward's Brief Encounter," to give it its proper name, has elements that are enjoyable and highly inventive, sometimes both.

But the more I thought about that theatrical "Brief Encounter," the more troubled I became, the more its attitudes and choices bothered me. Taking it one step further, I began to realize that my growing displeasure was as much about what it means to be a critic in general, and a film critic in particular, as it was about what I saw on the stage.

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For those who don't know the 1945 British film that started it all, "Brief Encounter" is a small romantic gem. Coward wrote the screenplay based on his earlier one-act play, and though Lean went on to direct such epics as "Doctor Zhivago" and "Lawrence of Arabia," the playwright was the bigger name at the time and got top billing to prove it.

An unapologetic deep-dish romance about the power of love to both elevate and cause havoc, "Brief Encounter" is narrated in voice-over by Laura (Celia Johnson). "I'm an ordinary woman," she says. "I didn't think such violent things could happen to an ordinary woman. I've fallen in love."

Laura, it turns out, is already married, happily she thinks, with two children. But one day at a suburban train station, she gets a cinder in her eye and has it removed by a doctor named Alec, played by Trevor Howard.

Alec is also happily married with a family, but, attracted to each other and seeing no harm in a friendship, these two continue to meet every Thursday, sharing companionable pleasures like cheerful lunches and trips to the movies. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, something changes. "You know what's happened," Alec says to Laura at one point, and indeed she does.

Released almost 60 years ago, "Brief Encounter" is a product of a different time period as well as a different, less permissive morality, and it has never been to everyone's taste. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, for instance, famously didn't care for it, feeling "Coward's material is implicitly condescending" and concluding "there's not a breath of air in it."

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But if "Brief Encounter" has any validity, it's as a beautifully restrained romance. Howard's performance launched his film career, while Johnson's got her an Oscar nomination, and together they make us truly ache for this couple consumed by guilt and fear because they are so desperately, hopelessly in love.

That romance exists on stage, but, frankly, even though the production's publicity material disguises this, its presence plays almost as an afterthought. As adapted and directed by Kneehigh's Emma Rice, this "Brief Encounter" has its mind on something else entirely.

Perhaps feeling that the original's sincere love story was too stuffy, not hip enough for today's too-cool-for-school audiences, Rice and company have put the majority of their energy into knockabout farce, often with burlesque overtones, as the erotic shenanigans of two other couples (played, it must be said, by talented performers Joe Alessi, Dorothy Atkinson, Damon Daunno and Annette McLaughlin) are contrasted to the more physically restrained situation that Laura and Alec find themselves in.

Though Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock, who play Laura and Alec on stage, do take their relationship seriously, they are fighting a losing battle with a production that feels the romance is something that simply has to be gotten past, like recitatives in opera, to get to the good comic stuff.

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The play's virtues include impressive stagecraft, clever mixing of filmed situations with on-stage action. Having Laura walk from the stage into a projected film was engaging to watch even with the knowledge that Buster Keaton did basically the same thing in "Sherlock Jr." back in 1924.

Still, despite these good things, I could not shake a protective feeling about the original film, a sense that its essence had been disrespected. I also couldn't understand why astute theater critics could not care less about this issue, why Ben Brantley in the New York Times, for instance, had written that this adaptation's "real raison d'être is to love, honor, and obey the spirit of the film that inspired it," when I felt the opposite was the case.

The more I thought about that, the more I realized that my reservations about the play and the theater critics' parallel passion for it was really a question not of the specifics of the production but of whose ox was being gored.

If you care enough about a particular art to devote large chunks of your life to watching it and writing about it, by definition you have a special passion for it. That emotion leads you to defend it when you perceive it as being attacked and also to advocate strongly for the examples you cherish.

Being a critic doesn't affect what you like and dislike, but it may mean that you care more deeply about specific works than the average viewer, no matter how many examples they see. Being a critic can turn you into a zealot for what you do end up favoring, both because you care so much and because breaking through the media static to get people's attention can be challenging. If you want to have a good watchdog, someone once said, you have to put up with some barking, and that may be the case with critics as well.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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