The Go-Between (1971) ****
Directed by: Joseph Losey.
Written by: Harold Pinter based on the novel by L.P. Hartley.
Starring: Julie Christie (Marian - Lady Trimingham), Alan Bates (Ted Burgess), Margaret Leighton (Mrs. Maudsley), Michael Redgrave (Leo Colston), Dominic Guard ('Leo' Colston), Michael Gough (Mr. Maudsley), Edward Fox (Hugh Trimingham), Richard Gibson (Marcus).
On the surface, The Go-Between resembles many other films. It is about a relationship between an upper class British woman, Marian (Julie Christie) and a lower class farmer, Ted (Alan Bates) who truly do love each other, but can never be together because of their difference in class. This has been a standard story in British literature for as long as there has been such a thing. And yet, Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between is still a stunning film. Harold Pinter adapted L.P. Hartley’s novel, which looks at this relationship over one summer through the eyes of a 12 year old boy – and how the consequences of what happened that summer reverberates through the years, forever scarring everyone involved.
The film stars young Dominic Guard as Leo, who is school friends with Marcus (Richard Gibson) and is invited to spend the summer with them. Leo is middle class, doesn’t have all the advantages or money that Marcus does, and at first, he seems at awe of their huge estate. The family is nice, if a little condescending towards him – especially Marian, who takes a shine to Leo, even going so far as to take him into town to buy him a summer suit, when it becomes clear that he does not own one. Leo is smitten with Marian, and will do anything for her. Something she uses to her advantage. Things really get started when Marcus gets sick and has to stay in bed all day – leaving Leo to wonder the countryside by himself. One day he ends up stumbling upon the farm on the family land that is rented to Ted Burgess. Ted is nice to Leo, but also probes him with questions. Does he ever see Marian alone? Could he take her a letter without anyone else seeing it? Leo doesn’t understand the implications of this before it is too late. Soon, he is running back and forth almost daily with letters between the two lovers. He becomes confused when he is told that Marian is going to marry not Ted, but Hugh Trimingham (Edward Fox), the scarred war hero with a title. He will eventually ask Marian why she cannot marry Ted. She simply replies “I cannot”. When he follows this up by asking her why she is marrying Hugh she simply says “Because I must”. It won’t be until the end of the film when all of this comes together.
The Go-Between is an expertly calibrated mood piece. Losey has an eye for period detail, and everything in the film looks just right. The cinematography by Gerry Fisher is expert, with a camera that is constantly moving, constantly watching. The score by Michael Legrand is ever present, and sets the tone. Like the previous Losey-Pinter collaboration, The Go-Between experiments with time, flashing forward to the end of the story, or the epilogue, during the second half of the film, rather than simply using it as a bookend. This helps to put the cause and effects next to each other, to see what will become of the characters, and why, as it happens.
Pinter’s screenplay here is one of his best. It is one where what isn’t said is emphasized – one where we get layers that fly right over poor, young, naïve Leo’s head. The lovers may be older than they were intended to be (Julie Christie was almost 30, and Marian was originally written as a teenager), but this adds to the sad poignancy of her character. She has not yet married, she is in love for the first time in her life, but instead of being able to pursue that love, she is stuck with Hugh. One of the nice things about the film is that Hugh is not portrayed as a bad guy. He is nice to Leo – nicer than most of the rest of the family. It isn’t his fault that Marian is in love with someone else.
The performances work beautifully. Dominic Guard is wonderful as the child on the brink of sexual awakening, but still naïve about it. Julie Christie is wonderful as the tragic heroine – caught between what she wants and what she is expected to do. Alan Bates is in fine form as the lower class farmer, who nonetheless is kind and gentle. And Margaret Leighton is magnificent as Christie’s mother, who knows far more than she lets on.
Out of the three Losey-Pinter collaborations, I think The Go-Between is probably the weakest. It doesn’t quite have the subversive kick of The Servant (1963) or the complexity of Accident (1967). And yet, it is still a great film. These two simply knew how to bring the best out of each other – push each other farther. It is one of the best writer-director collaborations in film history.