This is a more complicated question than you might think. “Brief Encounter” was released just nine years after King Edward VIII abdicated from the throne to marry divorced American Wallis Simpson. The marriage was widely respected, and infidelity was definitely frowned upon more than it does today, coming across very strongly in the scene where Alec’s smarmy friend breaks them in alone in his apartment and gives Alec a full band-aid. He was also banned in Ireland for depicting “many seductive and indelicate situations” (via irish time), and he wouldn’t see the inside of an Irish movie theater for another 17 years.
In the UK, the situation was more nuanced. While the moral values that Laura and Alec pretty much manage to cling to were still prevalent, things were different during the wartime. As historian Matthew Sweet has observed (via BBC):
“A lot of rules were broken when it came to loyalty and relationships. If you lived your life in the shadow of the V2s and in the shadow of the Blitz, you were going to act like there was no no tomorrow because it was very likely that there would be none.So during the war there is a big increase in marital infidelity and affairs.
At first glance, “Brief Encounter” is very stiff and middle-class, but it was much more inclusive than it appears, and audiences were more sympathetic to Laura and Alec for reasons that weren’t necessarily romantic. . The film’s last line was particularly poignant for viewers at the end of a devastating global conflict. Thomas Dixon, author of “Weeping Britannia,” said (via BBC):
“The movie theater in particular was this special place, this special dark semi-private secret place where you could go and listen to Rachmaninoff and cry to death…for an audience in 1945 to hear those words, ‘Thank you for ‘come to me’, there have been terrible separations, perhaps there have been these secret romances, these illicit liaisons, these heartaches, these heartaches, these mothers separated from their sons, etc. And a lot of people have these reunions and endings, and come back together, so those few words…meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Perhaps that’s why “Brief Encounter” remains so enduringly popular with British audiences. It was a film that spoke to all those who had loved and lost, been separated and reunited, during the war years. These feelings have been transmitted from generation to generation in a country whose national identity is still very much influenced by the Second World War.