Twelve-year-old Leo Colston is spending summer with Marcus Maudsley, an aristocratic schoolmate, in a luxuriant mansion in the hot, lush Norfolk country. Leo’s family’s solvency isn’t nearly as strong. His mother, a widow, may have to sell the rare books that her husband, a banker, collected as a hobby. The Maudsleys buy Leo new clothes, their generosity a reminder to him (and themselves) of his indebtedness, of his more or less borrowed life. They are well practiced in their upper-class manners and rituals, all of which bespeak their power as conferred on them, and others like them, by England’s entrenched class structure. Meanwhile, Leo has his own secret rituals; involving curses and magic, they bespeak his powerlessness, for which they are compensation, on three fronts: he is a non-aristocrat, a child in a vast, bewildering adult world, and someone who is fatherless.
Leo is the protagonist of Joseph Losey’s third and final collaboration with Harold Pinter, whose script is based on L.P. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between. It is framed in the present, that is to say, after the Second World War, but in the main it unfolds in the past, when Leo was a boy, prior to the First World War. Its opening is famous: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The Edwardian England that Leo distantly remembers: how much of it was real? how much has passed into fiction, conjured by the pressure of Leo’s always having been the outsider desperately wanting to be let in? Memories are a function of the mind and subject to all the things that influence it; they are an elusive grasp of moods and events that were elusive themselves in the first place. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. The opening line comes to fruition in the book very near the close when, in his sixties now, Leo confesses that he is a “foreigner in the world of the emotions, ignorant of their language . . . .” This first-person utterance isn’t in the film, and it doesn’t need to be. The truth of it is visible in Leo’s voice and demeanor in Michael Redgrave’s brilliant performance as someone who “flew too near the sun and [was] scorched.” What happened to the boy that Leo once was? That is what the film, like the book, is about.
Marcus’s older sister, Marian, befriends Leo, not because she especially likes him; in Julie Christie’s interesting, underrated performance, Marian often seems like a smug mass of barely suppressed impatience lying in wait to pounce on the boy. But this social inferior proves useful to her. Marian is betrothed to an appropriate match, Trimingham; but her lover is the inappropriate Ted Burgess, a tenant farmer. Marian and Ted enlist Leo as their go-between, who secretly delivers written notes between them. It is clear that Marian will marry Trimingham, and indeed she does, thereby becoming Lady Trimingham. It is also clear that her parents and Trimingham know about her and Burgess, and have probably forbade any more contact between them. (At one point, having figured out that Marian and Burgess must be together, Trimingham also uses Leo to deliver to her a message summoning her to join him.) Leo’s increasingly unwilling role as their private postal carrier provides a means of surreptitious contact. But Marian’s mother (Margaret Leighton, superb) interrupts Leo’s thirteenth birthday celebration to compel him to take her to Marian, whose absence can mean only one thing. But who is Leo, after all, not to be sacrificed at the altar of Mrs. Maudsley’s class and parental prerogatives? Leo leads—or, rather, Mrs. Maudsley leads with Leo, the ostensible leader, in tow. They come upon an indecent scene of the lovers having sex—indecent precisely because Mrs. Maudsley foists a view of it on Leo’s innocent eyes. It is a primal scene fantasy brought to vivid life, and Leo loses his surrogate father, who indeed commits suicide (this is beautifully handled as a quick, light aside, as though Leo has been unable to confront Ted’s end), reiterating or compounding Leo’s loss: it hardly matters which. Properly, as she has been trained to behave, Mrs. Maudsley covers Leo’s eyes; but it is she who has brought him to this horror, thereby consummating the selfish, ruthless, unthinking use to which her daughter had put an infatuated Leo. It is important to take into account that Marian had manipulated Leo on the basis of his unformed sexual feelings for her.
How much did Marian love Ted Burgess? Who can say whether their affair wasn’t predicated, at least on her part, on its forbidden nature, its taste of romance and adventure before an endlessly prim, uninteresting marriage. Regardless, it destroys Burgess and, because of his participation in that destruction, Leo.
But there is something more to Leo’s destruction—and their realizing this essential aspect of Hartley’s novel may be Pinter and Losey’s finest achievement in The Go-Between. The class divide over which young Leo delivered the notes between Ted and Marian: this is ultimately what destroyed Leo, making all the more loathsome an elderly Marian’s refusal to accept any responsibility for the parched thing that Leo has turned out to be and, stupefyingly, her re-recruitment of him to deliver yet one more message, this time to her grandson, the real identity of whose grandfather . . . well, the past keeps impacting the present, doesn’t it?
Luchino Visconti’s disciple, Losey does what he has rarely been called upon to do: bring to life period detail. But what the film evokes is not so much an actual past as a dream of the past—a dream disclosing, at least on one level, the classist sentiments that Marian embodies, as did her mother. (One keeps wondering, for instance, whether Marian’s mother also had a similarly sordid affair before her marriage.) It is Leo who is, of course, narrating the film, and therefore he is the one who is doing the remembering; but it is his tragedy that his own memories are entangled in Marian’s and the life that she lived, which never did really, nor could, let him in.
The Go-Between took the top prize as best film at Cannes.
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