“The Go-Between” - Joseph Losey (1971)

There is something brilliant about Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971), even though, as I will discuss, the film has some flaws.  Based on L. P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between (1953), the film was the third and last pairing of director Losey and scriptwriter Harold Pinter, following The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967).  Although those two earlier collaborations resulted in outstanding films, The Go-Between is, to me, the best of the three.  

Perhaps because the film largely concerns the coming-of-age struggles of a young boy in a class-dominated society, the film seems to have been more appreciated in Europe than in America [1,2,3]. There it won the Grand Prix (aka the Palme d’Or) at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, and it was nominated for an astonishing twelve British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards – Best Film, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor (2 people), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Soundtrack, and Most Promising Newcomer.  One person who wasn’t nominated but who should have been was Michel Legrand, whose haunting piano-based score is a key contributing feature to the film’s moody greatness.

Although I said the film concerns the coming-of-age struggles of a young boy, this is not just a coming-of-age story.  The boy’s perspective serves as a lens on a number of personal and social themes, including 
  • the impact of lasting memories
  • the nature and value of gentility
  • the distinctions between love and romantic passion – and the role sex plays in these feelings
  • the degree to which femininity and womanhood both empowered and enslaved women in traditional upperclass British society.
And anyway, in this story the boy never does satisfactorily come of age.

The story of The Go-Between begins with a sermonic statement:
    "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
Then it opens in around 1900 showing twelve-year-old Leo Colston (sensitively played by Dominic Guard) having come as a summer guest to Brandham Hall, the wealthy family estate of his school friend, Marcus Maudsley (Richard Gibson), in Norfolk, England.  Leo comes from less wealthy family circumstances, and he struggles to live up to the proud presumptuousness of his rich classmate and his family.  However, Leo is cordially made to feel welcome by some members of the family circle – Marcus’s genteel mother, Mrs. Maudsley (Margaret Leighton); Marcus’s beautiful older sister, Marian (Julie Christie); and Hugh (Edward Fox), who as Viscount Trimingham is the owner of the estate.

Probably as a defense mechanism to the bullying rampant in English boarding schools, Leo has become known in school as someone who can cast magical curses on those who bully him.  Leo’s curses and incantations seem to have constituted a significant element in the novel, but here in the film, although they are occasionally shown, they don’t amount to much, and they are only a distraction [3].  So their inclusion is one of the film’s weaknesses.

Another weakness is occasioned by brief and cryptic flash-forwards (the first one of which appears early on in the film) to a time some fifty years later, showing an elderly man (Michael Redgrave), who we will eventually learn is the aged Leo Colston, coming to visit Brandham Hall.  The viewer can guess this is a flash-forward by the 1950-ish automobile shown in the shot, but its significance is initially unclear.  There are about a dozen of these flash-forwards interspersed throughout the film, and only at the end will their meaning be cleared up.  (At that point the viewer might come to the conclusion that the entire film up to this point has actually been an extended flashback into the past.)  This flash-forward/flashback mechanism was a significant narrative element in the novel, but it doesn’t work well in the film [1,2,3].  The flash-forwards here in the film are too sketchy and only a source of confusion early on.

Anyway, as the story proceeds, Marcus soon comes down with the measles, and so Leo has lost his only playmate at Brandham Hall.  Looking for ways to distract himself, Leo now wanders over to play in the haystack at the neighboring Black Farm, where he meets the tenant farmer there, Ted Burgess (Alan Bates).  Ted is a roughhewn member of the working class, whose unpolished manner contrasts markedly with that of the high-class crowd over at Brandham Hall. 
After Ted attends to Leo’s skinned knee, which was injured in a fall off the haystack, the two of them become friendly, and Ted asks Leo to carry a secret written message of his to Marian.  Not knowing what the message might contain, Leo willingly and clandestinely delivers the message to Marian.  Soon Leo becomes the “secret postman” for Marian and Ted, repeatedly delivering confidential messages between the two young adults, who, because of class distinctions, do not publicly socialize with each other.  So Leo is their go-between.

One person Marian does sometimes socialize with is Hugh, who is a dashing young gentleman but whose face was severely scarred earlier in the Boer conflict.  Leo likes both Hugh and Ted, but he gradually suspects something special is going on between Marian and Ted, and the rest of the family is not supposed to know about it.  This is disturbing for Leo, because he clearly has a crush on Marian.  On occasions when he is alone with Ted, the naive Leo keeps asking him what it is that goes on between men and women in secret.  Couching his inquisitiveness, he asks Ted how it came to be that one of his horses came to have a foal.  Ted evasively responds that the mare had engaged in “spooning” with another horse, but he doesn’t explain what ‘spooning’ is.

Eventually, Marcus recovers from the measles, and they all attend a cricket match involving local participants.  In the match Ted is clearly the star batsman, repeatedly knocking bowler Hugh’s pitches for boundaries and sixes, and Leo surprisingly makes a spectacular catch of a ball hit by Ted.  Afterwards in the clubhouse, both Ted and Leo sing songs for the collected participants, and Leo is feeling more and more like an accepted member of this social group.

But afterwards, Marcus tells Leo a secret: his sister Marian is engaged to be married to Hugh.  This news disturbs Leo, and he separately tells both Marian and Ted, without explanation, that he wants to stop being their secret postman.  This doesn’t go down well with Marian and Ted, and they both express their anger with Leo.

Leo is still puzzled about romantic passions, and one day he now asks Hugh to explain a story that Leo had read about two men who fought a duel over one of the men’s wife.  But, Leo tells Hugh, he himself suspects that it was actually the wife who was at fault.  Hugh responds solemnly that
        “nothing is ever a lady’s fault”.
Leo later also overhears a guarded conversation between Hugh and Marian’s father (Michael Gough) that seems to indicate, to the viewer, that they know something is going on between Ted and Marian.  The polite solution to this problem, according to Hugh, is to have Ted go off and join the army.  When Leo goes to say his goodbye to Ted, he asks him if he will really join the army.  Ted resignedly answers that he will do that if that is what Marian wants.  These are indications that in those days, the feminine ideal not only restricted women, it impose its restrictions on men, too.

And when Leo goes to say his goodbye to Marian, he asks her, “Why don’t you marry Ted?”  But she only glumly responds, “I can’t”.  Not fully understanding, Leo then asks her, “But why are you marrying Hugh?” And Marian tearfully replies, “Because I must.”  This is a moving articulation of the coercive social forces at play in this story, and the way they can have tragic consequences.

Finally, there is Leo’s 13th birthday party held at the estate, and Marian has said she is visiting family friend Nanny Robson and will arrive a little later, at 6pm.  When it starts raining and the family, seeking to provide Marian with safe transport home, learn that Marian is not to be found at Nanny Robson home, Mrs. Maudsley grabs Leo and says the two of them must go to where she suspects Marian must be.  They rush over to Black Farm and find Marian and Ted making love in one of the stalls.  We are left to mostly imagine what transpires next, but we do see that this untimely exposure did lead to Ted’s suicide.

The concluding scene is an exercise in grim resignation.  It moves the viewer to the flash-forward time-period fifty years later.  Marian meets with Leo and learns that Leo, traumatized by what happened fifty years earlier, has led a dry, shriveled life as a lifelong bachelor.  He could never overcome the feelings of guilt and horror that arose from the events with which he was connected back then when he was on the verge of adolescence.  Marian tells him that her husband, Hugh, and her son had died long ago, but that her young grandson, who physically resembles Ted Burgess, is still alive.  And she tells Leo that she has one last message for him to deliver to her grandson.  Tell  him everything, she says, especially tell him who his real grandfather was and tell him about the joyous love she had shared with that man.

Overall, and despite the two flaws I mentioned earlier, The Go-Between is a brilliant and thought-provoking piece.  It gets better upon repeated viewings.  In fact I would say that the decision on the part of Losey and Pinter to de-emphasize the plot elements associated with those aforementioned flaws, i.e the flash-forwards and Leo’s ritualistic curses, and instead just concentrate on Leo’s anguished existential experiences was the right one.  That’s what we remember about this film. 

In addition, I feel that the camera work and editing are outstanding, and the acting performances across the board are superb.  Special kudos are due to Dominic Guard whose delicate and emotive portrayal of the young Leo Colston is particularly good.  But perhaps the most crucial contribution to the film’s greatness is, as I suggested above, Michel Legrand’s piano-based score.  It establishes and sustains a mood of intense feeling that provides an emotional coloring lying at the heart of this film.  Leo was the go-between but he missed out on the precious and all-too-brief moments of life to which he was only a dimly comprehending vehicle. Legrand’s music and Losey’s direction expressionistically conjure up these feelings in an inimitable way.

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Go-Between”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1971).   
  2. Tony Mastroianni, “‘Go-Between’ May Be Classic”, Cleveland Press. (23 December 1971).   
  3. Christopher C. Hudgins, “Harold Pinter’s The Go-Between: The Courage To Be”, Cycnos,  14 (1), (June 2008).   

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