By Fergus Henderson. The inevitable Downton Abbey film has finally arrived, which means it’s the perfect time to examine perhaps the best of that breed of British films that encases in amber the late Victorian aristocracy and their swooning antics, 1971’s The Go-Between. What sets this film apart from the rest of that considerable canon are the two main creatives helming it, director Joseph Losey, and writer Harold Pinter.
The Go-Between is ostensibly the tale of a young boy, Leo (Dominic Guard), a guest in the country estate of the dandy Maudsleys. He becomes besotted by the older Marian Maudsley (Julie Christie at an indisputable career peak), who in turn is having a secret affair with burly working class farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates). No one can know, as Marian is due to marry the much posher Hugh (Edward Fox). Soon Leo, in a bid to win Marian’s affections, begins delivering their messages, ignorant to what he is really doing.
Now this is ostensibly the story, but as you know, that story could quite easily be done by rote, a simple melodrama of colliding passions and forbidden love. Thankfully, The Go-Between is the third and best collaboration between Losey and Pinter, two absolute masters of subtext and emotion, and so it is truly the best version of that story, the version that expresses its full complexity.
It is a tale of youth and the winding journey from innocence to experience, one imbued with perversion and fatalism. It is a barbed tale of class, and the repression and expression of anger and sadness. It is doomed love, witnessed by a third party who becomes drawn destructively into it. It is, finally, an elliptically told story that looks back on the past but that seems to be saying that the present is the real mystery.
The whole thing is so gorgeous and tragic and enigmatic that is easy to forget how perfectly all of its components come together. You have Michel Legrand’s soundtrack, a dramatic cascade of piano scales that gives voice to the passion and drama the characters must keep hidden. There is Julie Christie, there is Alan Bates, both straining invisibly at the class hierarchies that bind them, acting as perfectly as anyone ever has. Behind it all you have Losey’s signature subtle weirdness, coming through in the modernist editing and taut camera work.
It is hard to put into words what really makes this film work as well, and as singularly, as it does. Perhaps it is because Losey was an American, blacklisted and exiled from his home during the McCarthy era, who found his new home (and a renewed and developed artistic expression) in England. Perhaps it is because Pinter was a writer of such talent that Marian’s mother can ask Leo “what have you seen?” and a whole world of pain and suspicion and betrayal can sound out from underneath her words. Perhaps it is that both were fundamentally outsiders to the subject matter.
Whatever it was, the stars rarely align as perfectly as they did when Losey and Pinter decided to make this film. Seek it out, it is truly ageless.
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