Mental States and Narrative Line in ‘Brief Encounter’ and ‘The Red Shoes’

‘Mental States and Narrative Line in ‘Brief Encounter’ and ‘The Red Shoes” by Canaan Perry. Suggested citation below article.

Although films have other significant properties, most prominently sound and music, they are by nature a visual medium[1] which can be utilised to graphically depict mental and psychological states. However, much like the way we perceive our own lives, through forms of narrative, film relies on some sort of story telling in order to make sense of the collection of disparate images. The images are thus forced into a narrative context: film directors and their collaborators attempt to structure the disparate pieces as to generate a story and a particular audience response. Despite this however, because of film’s reliance on visual montage it can be perceived as dream-like in nature which makes it technologically suited to an exploration of representational mental modes and frameworks. But can these technologically perpetuated mental transgressions function as a paradigm outside of the narrative structure of the story? Are the depictions of mental states in film more important than the narrative line per se? In this essay I will explore some of the complexities which arise in the light of these questions in relation to two 1940s British Films: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). I will attempt to ascertain here whether these films demonstrate a predilection for mapping representations of the human mental state which is more prevalent or important than the narrative line alone.

Brief Encounter is the story of “a doomed, and ultimately unconsummated, extra-marital love affair between Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) a middleclass housewife with children, and local married doctor, Alex Harvey (Trevor Howard).”[2] Although tempted by the possibility of a transcendent romantic relationship, Laura ultimately resists and returns to the certainty of her dreary domestic realm and Alex takes his family to South Africa in order to end the affair. Within the film’s diegetic confines, the nodes which stem from the modern transit network, such as the tea rooms of train terminals and the city structures which house cafes and escapist entertainment like the movie theatre come to represent a space where new possibilities and chance meetings can occur but may never be ultimately realised. In The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger show the audience how the female domain of expression is limited by patriarchal forces and structures. The female protagonist Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), a ballerina, who has been adopted by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) to dance in his elite ballet group, is forced to choose between the totalitarian and misogynistic desires/demands of Lermontov and the requirements of her domestic life with her husband Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who is an aspiring composer. The film alleviates this narrative complexity by depicting Vicky committing artistic suicide, as she jumps off a balcony and damages her body, presumably beyond the point of repair. These essential narrative structures, which are in essence constraints, that I have outlined here, actually promote the filmic exploration of the characters mental states in both texts. It is these cerebral depictions which I am interested in here.

In Brief Encounter the settings, which primarily revolve around a network of railways, come to be imparted with psychological significance. The film begins with an image of a speeding locomotive and it is trains that bring the lovers together and also drag them apart. The film’s depiction of the transit system with its interconnected nodes of potential encounters echoes Berman’s statement regarding the modern human condition with its forms of “vital experience – experience of space and time, of the self and others, of life’s possibilities and perils.”[3] The system of railway networks which stretch like a multi-pronged leviathan throughout post-industrial England are a by-product of modern discourses of mobile consumerism and function within a realm of strict time constraints and cartographic spatial epistemologies. Within the confines of the text these modern discourses which underpin the transport system and the rail system network itself, come to metaphorically represent Laura’s mental state of potential freedom and actual entrapment.

Frankfurt School thinkers Horkheimer and Adorno note that Enlightenment discourse offers, on the one hand, a potential for human emancipation but, on the other hand (and in practice), a new mode of human enslavement and control. They state that the:

[S]ystem as a whole tends to evolve towards destruction and domination. Moments of triumph for the ideas of freedom are atypical, and act as temporary barriers to this overall trend. This is how and why the liberation of the individual from feudalism only leads to a new enslavement.[4]

Brief Encounter is laden with evidence of a similar dialectal pattern, as Laura is granted certain freedoms via her use of the rail network. She is able to shop, have lunch and see films by herself and engage in potential social and/or intimate human relations because of her mobility which is primarily generated by her utilisation of rail within the film’s diegesis. Laura could not have met her secret (potential) lover if she had not travelled on rail to escape the docility of her domestic realm. These events tend to exhibit an emancipated state. However, the film also demonstrates how the modern world of networked transport affirms her social ensnarement. Rail constructs a space of new possibilities and altered subjectivities, but at the same time limits them because the strict temporal constraints of the train timetable. The ringing of the bell in the station always signals to the characters that their meeting is over. In one of Laura and Alex’s planned encounters, Alex does not show up till very late and is running to catch his train. Laura says frantically “Your train you’ll miss it…Quickly, quickly; the whistles gone,”[5] and Alex briskly runs up the platform and onto the carriage. As soon as Alex is on his train Laura hears the announcement that “the train to Ketchworth is about to leave from platform three” and she quickly runs to catch it. If she does not go home she jeopardises her economically stable/safe marriage: “we’re a happily married couple” Laura states in the first person voice over narration that runs throughout the course of the film (discussed further below). The metaphorical significance of the rail network thus parallels Laura’s mental sense of freedom and enslavement. It represents her potential to develop a new romance, on the one hand, and her inability to ultimately realise its potential because of the social taboos regarding adultery. The depiction of Laura’s mental state in this regard seems to serve as an adjunct to the narrative line rather than as something that stands alone as the dilemma of choosing between the known and safe and the unknown and exciting lie at the heart of the story.

In The Red Shoes Victoria Page is torn between two male figures who limit her freedom. Like Laura, who is caught up in the metaphorical web of the railway junctures and literal social mores, Victoria is caught in the web of patriarchal expectations and demands. Her employer Boris Lermontov initially appears in the film as a benevolent father figure for all of his staff but is later revealed to run his ballet company like a totalitarian dictator, seeking to “ignore” the limitations of human nature. He becomes obsessed with making Victoria dance the ballet of The Red Shoes based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale in which a female victim is danced to death by the devil’s red shoes. It is as if Lermontov embodies a misogynistic fantasy were women are physically punished or destroyed by supernatural forces for the sake of the male viewer/admirer. When confronting Victoria about her relationship with his apprentice composer Julian Craster, Lermontov states: “you cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”[6] When Victoria leaves the ballet company to support her husband’s burgeoning career she is, however, drawn, like Laura into the mundane realm of domesticity.

The Red Shoes explores Victoria’s psychological torment which emanates from this bipolar diegetic context. In the film’s fourteen minute depiction of the ballet of The Red Shoes the spectacle of colour cinema represents Victoria’s journey through the cerebral pathways of her trauma. Buscombe notes that the introduction of colour to film “was not accepted [by contemporary audiences] as connoting reality”[7] rather it came to be associated, in general, with the unrealistic or the fantastic. Popular films like The Wizard of Oz (1939) may have played a role in this perception, as its fantasy world setting is depicted in colour and the banal diegetic “real” world of Kansas is black and white. Certainly, the ballet section of The Red Shoes seems surreal in nature and achieves fantastical, visual marvels that could not be achieved in a regular stage production. For example, Victoria sees a photographically imposed motion image of herself wearing the red shoes in the shopkeeper’s window. During the part of the ballet where we see the shadow of the devil pulling at her feet the film cuts between images of the devil shoemaker, Lermontov and Julian which represents Victoria’s mental anguish about the situation she is involved in within her diegetic life. It is as if the forces of male control are pulling her back and forward and she has come to be torn and compartmentalised by the love she feels for dancing, an arena controlled by Lermontov, and the realm of intimate love she shares with Julian where she is unable to dance. As the ballet continues the painted backgrounds become more abstract and impressionistic.[8] Wild streaks of blue, sparsely detailed structures of black and pools of red suggest that Victoria is dancing within a realm beyond the sphere of diegetic reality. The mise en scène thus comes to embody the audience perception of colour that Buscombe describes above: one of fantasy outside the realm of reality. Thus for the viewer the ballet evolves into a mental and emotional journey into the afterlife for the character Victoria is playing but it also tends to mirror Victoria’s own psychological frame of mind where the many social forces are pushing her towards choosing between her art and her domestic duties as the wife of Julian. Once again it is difficult to say that these effects that map some of the complexities of human thought and emotional conflict are more important than the narrative per se, rather they seem again to compliment the story rather than fully depart from it.

Another more literal exploration of the psychological that is woven into Brief Encounter which we may discuss here is portrayed through Laura’s voice over narration. Unlike The Red Shoes where the ballet and its colourful pastiche seem to represent the character’s thought processes it is Laura’s melancholic utterances that intimately involves the audience in her mental torment. At the beginning of the film, which is also temporally the end, Laura is on the train with another verbally active character that has no insight into what Laura is feeling. The voice over narration says that:

This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really, neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long…I want to remember every minute, [of the affair] always.

Although there is a particular focus here on sound, the close up image of Laura’s face which fills a large proportion of the lens, in conjunction with the voice, provides the audience with another, more literal, representational of a mental state. The focus on the head does not just reveal the still facial image of the actor, it also emphasises that this voice emanates from the “head” (=the mind) of the character. However, what we should be alerted to here is how the narrative is mediated through a representational mental state. We as an audience come to understand the diegesis and narrative through Laura’s thought patterns. The other woman who talks “nineteen to the dozen” on the train is actually drained out by the voice over narration. This indicates that the medium of thought is utilised by the film to generate a coherent narrative rather than being a stand alone effect.

Another feature of both texts that alerts us to a psychological emphasis revolves around the conflict between the film’s diegetic realities and the character’s ideals. In this regard the narrative and the depiction of mental states can be seen to be clearly connected. In Brief Encounter, for example Laura begins to tell herself that there is a potential future for her and Alex. As we see her face peering out of the train’s window she says in the voice over narration that she:

Felt quite wildly happy. Like a romantic schoolgirl, like a romantic fool…he said he loved me and I said I loved him…I imagined him holding me in his arms; imagined being with him in all sorts of glamorous circumstances.

As Laura’s fantasy unfolds the image of her face in the train carriage window dissolves into a blurry dream sequence of Alex and her dancing, attending an opera in Paris, rowing in Venice, travelling in cars and leaning together on the rail of the ship. Her visions, however, “dissolve” as she arrives at her stop in Ketchworth and all her “silly dreams” disappear. For Victoria, the dream of living to dance, as she describes to Lermontov when he hires her, is also an ideal which cannot be realised in her diegetic context. This is because the patriarchal forces which figuratively pull her back and forth force her to choose between domestic obscurity and fame. The shattering of her body in the fall from the balcony is a physical manifestation of her inner turmoil which is a direct result of the psychological conflict she feels between her idealistic individual desires and her socially constructed notions of husband and state servitude. As Geraghty notes a common theme which arose in post-war British cinema relates directly to this “problematic split between women’s social role and their individual needs.”[9] The desire to explore one’s own requirements as opposed to what was believed to be good for the state is clearly encoded in the narrative dilemmas of these films. The conflict between self and society which Victoria and Laura face are indeed depicted as mental in nature in both films but these effects are proponents of the narrative line. This is because the complexity of their diegetic situations and the movement towards resolution are in fact essential narrative elements. It is the mental complications they each encounter that the narrative seeks to resolve/correct. Thus, it is difficult to argue that the two film’s depictions of mental and psychological are of more important than the narrative flow of the texts.

Thus far it has been argued that the films actually utilise representative mental explorations as adjuncts to the narrative. However, one of the initial questions I asked related to whether the mental components could stand alone outside of the story structure. Do these depictions threaten the narrative line in any way? Certainly, the ballet section in The Red Shoes could be read as a solitary text which in, some regards, I have done here although I have attempted to state that it is connected to the overall narrative structure of the film. In Brief Encounter the hold on diegetic reality is perhaps a little more tenuous. Unlike The Red Shoes with its ballet section we do not have another level of performance inside of the story. Rather, we are given a temporally looped narrative in which the outcome of Laura’s love affair is shown as ending tragically right at the beginning of the film. So, we as an audience already know from the outset that this love affair is doomed. Laura as narrator, at times, may seem untrustworthy as she retrospectively seems to be reliving the emotions of the events. The dream sequence which I have outlined above gives a good example of the narrator’s excited tone as she talks almost maniacally about satisfying her romantic desires with Alex. In this regard the mental mode comes to dominate the logic of the narrative line, as it begins to suggest to the viewer that the consummation of the affair may actually transpire, although it does not. Brief Encounter’s utilisation of a more subjective narrative mode make it subtly more psychological in its depiction than the more omnisciently conceived narrative which we see in The Red Shoes where the ballet section is a kind of departure from the diegetic reality of the rest of the film. If we consider too that Laura is narrating an account of some events which have just transpired over the last few weeks the film comes to look like an edited dream sequence that has been transferred to film and which she has overdubbed her voice on top of. Although, an exploration of this is beyond the scope of this work this idea that the film is a documented memory sequence suggests again that it is a text with a number of representational psychological components.

In this essay I have attempted to explore some of the problems which arise when one encounters the representation of psychological states in cinema. Although, the two texts I have discussed here are both rich in mental explorations, they are also structured narratives in which filmic technique and experimentation is often an adjunct to the story itself. Certainly, it appears at times that the narrative of Brief Encounter could collapse because of the extreme emphasis on the main character’s subjectivity which is projected through representations of traumatic emotion and memory. However, the narrative tends to reassert itself throughout the course of the text, particularly at the end when she “returns” to her husband. It can thus be said that the exploration of mental states is not really of greater importance than narrative line but they are effective tools of narrative embellishment. In The Red Shoes I have argued that the ballet section is impressionistic and becomes an important mode for exploring the female protagonist’s mental dilemma but it is interwoven with the story rather than being something the overrides the narrative line per se. The greater social issue however, that underpin this essay relates to the alienation of the two protagonists. The miserable outcomes for the two female protagonists within their diegetic realities seems to highlight a post-war social trend which encouraged women to put aside their individual desires for happiness in order to fulfil more mundane social functions. This is not to say that films necessarily promote these ideologies but they do seem to document it.


[1] Gregory Currie suggests that “[f]ilms, like other kinds of pictures, are meant to be seen. The cinema…is a visual medium. A work in the cinematic medium is an artefact with certain properties accessible to sight, and no one has made appropriate contact with the work unless she is visually acquainted with these properties.” See Image and mind: Film, philosophy and cognitive science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 3.

[2] In Claire Langhamer, “Adultery in Post-War England,” History Workshop Journal 62 (2006), 87.

[3] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (London: Verso, 1982), p. 15: cited in Christine Geraghty, British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, genre and the ‘new look’ (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 22.

[4] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London: Verso 1979), p. 224.

[5] Brief Encounter (David Lean, Park Circus, UK, [1945] 2006). All subsequent references are to this edition.

[6] The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Carlton, UK, [1948] 2001). All subsequent references are to this edition.

[7] See Edward Buscombe “Sound and Colour,” The Film Cultures Reader, ed. Graeme Turner, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 81.

[8] It is interesting to note that Sheila Benson describes the entire film as impressionistic. “It’s hard, looking back from our ultra-realistic era of movies, to imagine the impact of that audacious, impressionistic film of 1948.” See “The Red Shoes 1948,” Film Comment 26, 3 (1990), 39.

[9] In Christine Geraghty, British Cinema in the Fifties: Gender, genre and the ‘new look’ (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 82.

Author: Canaan Perry

Suggested citation: C. Perry, ‘Mental States and Narrative Line in Brief Encounter and The Red Shoes‘, Space Zoetrope: Commentaire Filmique, Litteraire et Culturel, Available URL: <
r-and-the-red-shoes/>, 2007.


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