The novels of L P Hartley are not to everyone’s taste. In his world everything is symbolic and intended to emphasise the characters and their stories and this can seem very heavy-handed and obvious. Harold Pinter was just the man to skew the symbolism into something more meaningful and, as you might expect, more socially conscious.
The story takes place in the high summer of 1900 (the British Empire is at its height and another prosperous and exciting century beckons). Leo Colston, (Dominic Guard), is taking his school holiday with his friend Marcus Maudsley. The Maudsley family have rented a stately home in Norfolk for the summer. We soon realise that, although Leo is “a very nice boy”, he is not of the Maudsley’s social class (Leo’s father was a bank clerk, Mr Maudsley is a City banker), making him very uncomfortable and lonely. He doesn’t have any proper summer clothes (“I expect mother forgot to put them in,” he explains feebly) so the Maudsley’s daughter, Marian, (Julie Christie), offers to take him into Norwich to buy some. Mrs Maudsley, (Margaret Leighton), is oddly reluctant to allow this but has to give in rather than risk an open argument (especially in front of the servants).
During the trip Leo, who already has a healthy boy’s interest in Julie Christie, becomes infatuated with her. She is open and friendly and vivacious where others are distant and reserved. He is even willing to lie and cover up for the fact that Marian met someone while they were supposed to be shopping.
This was Ted Burgess, (Alan Bates), a local tenant farmer who is also Marian’s secret lover. Leo becomes drawn into the affair when he is used, by both Ted and Marian, as a go-between, carrying messages in which they arrange secret meetings. Marian, however, is not only breaking class barriers, she is betraying her ‘official’ relationship with Hugh, Viscount Trimingham, (Edward Fox), which will consolidate her family’s social position, marrying into the aristocracy.
Leo becomes increasingly confused and unhappy. How can his wonderful Marian betray the man she is supposed to marry? Does she love Hugh or Ted? What does ‘love’ mean? What is sex, and why do grown-ups think it’s so important and feel so guilty about it at the same time?
(During the development of the story of 1900, there have been brief clips of an old-ish man, (Michael Redgrave), arriving at Norwich railway station in the present day and being driven to the scenes of the main story in a hired limousine. Unlike the sun-drenched glories of the past, these scenes are dominated by wind, rain and grey skies.)
The film culminates at Leo’s thirteenth birthday party. Marian has not arrived and can’t be found. Mr Maudsley suggests diplomatically that they simply wait for her. Mrs Maudsley, however, has had enough. Grabbing Leo by the arm she forces him to take her to Ted and Marian’s meeting place in a barn, and Leo finally sees what ‘spooning’ really means (the film reaches a climax in more ways than one).
The final epilogue ties-up the scenes with the old man. This, of course, was Leo revisiting the scenes of the drama of years before. He meets a man who bears a surprising resemblance to Ted who turns out to be Marian’s son. She still married Hugh, and is now Dowager Lady Trimingham. Her son refuses to marry because Ted committed suicide when the affair was discovered and he is afraid he may be mentally unstable. Marian asks Leo to play go-between one last time, to convince her son he is the product of a great love affair. Leo is stunned by the request, but drives to the house on his final mission.
The first thing to say about the film is that it looks beautiful, the sun-soaked landscape is just what we remember of the summers of our youth, with lazy afternoons and the heat shimmering in the distance. The contrast with the grey, miserable, adult present is obvious.
Harold Pinter’s script maintains the main plot points of the novel, but lays more emphasis on the social aspects than Hartley. Ted represents the working classes who will shatter the social conventions of the Maudsley family and their kind. Marian, both as a girl from a good family and a woman is bound by convention and cannot follow her heart. Leo is the middle-class boy who just wants to please everyone but gets too involved for his own peace of mind.
Some of Hartley’s symbolism survives in the film, but doesn’t always work as it should. In the book the belladonna plant in the outbuildings, for example, symbolises Marian – the beautiful lady who is totally poisonous. Pinter treats Marian more gently, she is not simply selfish and exploitative (of both Leo and Ted) as she is in the book, but genuinely in love and unable to follow her heart because of class differences. The character of Hugh is also a problem. Edward Fox is a decent chap, who wears a fetching scar on his cheek, inflicted in the Boer War. The Hugh of the book is horribly disfigured on one side of his face (the other is a perfect aristocratic profile) which helps explain Marian’s reluctance to marry him. Once again we are dragged to the idea of Marian genuinely loving Ted, something far more dubious in the book.
More successful is the cricket match between the ‘gentlemen’ of the hall and the ‘players’ of the village, one of the film’s most famous highlights. Here is a perfect symbol of a situation dominated by strict rules and codes of conduct, where the wild, undisciplined slogging of Ted Burgess literally knocks the upper-classes for six, until he is ‘caught out’ by Leo (with a little help from Ted himself).
There is also a strange subplot involving Leo’s powers as a ‘magician’. Without the early scene-setting of the book (set at Leo’s school), these seem a bit out of place with the rest of the film. As an audience we just have to make a mental leap to believe that Leo has felt himself responsible for the outcome of the story (particularly Ted’s suicide) by laying a curse on the family.
‘The Go-Between’ is well-acted, with the cast making the most of the underlying menace typical of Pinter’s blandest dialogue, and beautifully filmed by Gerry Fisher. The score by Michel Legrand is suitably haunting and mysterious.
Cerebral, at times pretentious, American director, from the theatre. His American career (The Boy with Green Hair, a remake of M, The Prowler) was short-lived due to the Hollywood anti-Communist blacklist, and Losey escaped to Britain.