A Film Rumination: The Go-Between, Joseph Losey (1970)

gobetween05.jpg image by thehousenextdoor

7.5/10 (Good)

Winner of the Palm d’Or (at that time called the Grand Prix) at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival

Margaret Leighton was also Nominated for an Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role.

I usually stay away from Victorian costume dramas.  I usually stay away from films exploring the ennui of the British upper class.  I usually stay away from films about unrequited love.  However, Joseph Losey’s wonderful take on the subject, The Go-Between (1970) rises above most others which contain these standard themes — treatments which are all characterized by resplendent parades of costumes arrayed against voluptuous backdrops of mahogany furniture, omnipresent decanters filled with amber alcohols, immaculate gardens, and servants scurrying in dark corners at the fringes of the frame.

I saw this film for two reasons.  Firstly, I was recently blown away by Losey’s first collaboration — The Servant (see my review here) — with the Nobel Prize winning writer Harold Pinter, who wrote the screenplays for three of Losey’s films.  Secondly, it’s available to stream on netflix!  The Go-Between doesn’t disappoint.  Losey’s direction is top-notch.  The musical score is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing (a dark piano driven score which crawls and beckons and curdles beneath the skin).

Many reviewers are put of by the complicated narrative technique utilized in the the second half — the flash forward.  It takes a while to unravel the purpose of the short frames which occasionally at odd intervals flash before us.  Soon one realizes that the technology seen in the main narrative doesn’t match the technology in the secondary narrative — not careless errors as many apparently inattentive viewers have pointed out.  Losey purposefully includes technology (the side of a car, a television) in these scenes to key in the viewer to the change in time — a technique that does not always appear (based on the before mentioned reviews) to work.

I myself am not convinced that the secondary narrative (which takes up a total of three or four minutes of screen increasingly present at the end of the film) is necessary.  The emotional impact of the main narrative strand is forceful enough.  However, Harold Pinter adapted his screenplay from a novel by the same name by L. P. Hartley (1895-1972).  Hartley’s novel is constructed around the narration of the main character as an old man examining the events of his youth .  In the film version, Pinter has inverted that structure.  Instead of using a narrator, flash forwards at key scenes in the primary narrative show the boy as an old man.  Thus, Pinter’s adaptation maintains some of the novel’s integrity but removes the heavy nostalgic element of the novel created by its flashbacks and narration.

However, I found that the two narrative structure does not combine in a truly powerful or meaningful way.  This is also exasperated by the ambiguous quality of the flash forwards — the plot of which is only figured out by the end.  Thus, the viewer is faced with the triple task of figuring out that they are flash forwards, figuring out what they are even showing (since they are very short takes), and eventually figuring out how they even relate to the main narrative’s plot.  This might be to much for some viewers.

Plot (spoilers)

That said, the central plot is straightforward.  In the summer of 1900, a boy named Leo (Dominic Guard) visits the residence of his school friend.  Although of a lower class than his friend, Leo has become something of hero to his classmates who are under the impression that he is proficient in the occult for he “cast” a “spell” which caused two boys to fall from a roof.  Leo quickly develops a schoolboy crush on the sister of his friend, the beautiful twenty-year-old Marian (Julie Christie).  Marian convinces Leo to carry love letters back and forth between her and the burly commoner Ted Burgess (Alan Bates).

Leo looks up to Ted Burgess with whom he can talk freely outside the confines of the lavish residence presided over by Marian’s mother, Mrs. Maudsley (Margaret Leighton).  Although the family dotes on Leo (especially Marian who buys him clothes and presents), they remain remote.  Intitially Leo considers the conveyance of the illicit (and illegal) love letters a game which he carries out because of his friendship with Marian.  However, when he discovers that Marian is due to be married to Hugh Trimigham, a viscount, he is wrecked by doubts.  This eventually leads to Leo’s loss of innocence in matters of love, a realization of the overwhelming power of class, and emotional turmoil lasting into old age.

Further Thoughts

The cinematography is impeccable.  In a scene in a cathedral, the camera peers down at the boy ominously from on high, foreshadowing the devastating retribution to follow.  Harold Pinter’s screenplay, although not as layered and haunting as in The Servant, never lets the plot or visuals down.  I wish there were a few more scenes with Marian’s mother, Mrs. Maudsley, a commanding, powerful woman — a beacon of traditionalism.  The main character Leo is well acted — especially in scenes with Ted Burgess (who acts almost as a surrogate father to Leo) and scenes showing the inner turmoil caused by his conflicting loyalties and his straightforward view of right and wrong.

Joseph Losey, an American communist living in exile in England, occupies a unique position to examine the British class system.  All in all, this is a must see film which has somewhat fallen off the radar.  The score, cinematography, script, and inspired acting combine to create a emotionally devastating account of the loss of innocence.

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