Sunday, 2 October 2011

Blast From The Past: The Go-Between, Joseph Losey, UK 1971

"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there".

Thus begins L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between, which was first published in 1953 by Hamish Hamilton, setting the tone for the rest of the novel. The tone, to be sure, is one of nostalgia, though nostalgia in the best of senses for it is to his credit that Hartley refrains from the trait that seems to be inherent to nostalgia: glorifying the past. Glorifying the past is exactly what Hartley does not do. Rather similar to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, the memory of The Go-Between's main character, Leo, is also being unlocked by a particular incident, in this case it is discovery of an old collar box in which he comes across a diary, written some fifty years earlier, in the summer of 1900, the time when the novel's events unfold.

In its essence, The Go-Between is a critical observation of the British class system such as it was at the dawn of the Victorian age. Hartley's novel is much more than that, however, for it is also a coming-of-age story; a story about the loss of innocence and awakening sexuality.

Coming from a lower middle-class background, Leo receives an invitation to spend the summer at the elegant mansion of his friend Marcus. Leo's encounter with Marcus' beautiful sister, Marian, triggers his sexual awakening, though it must be mentioned that Hartley knows better than to lose himself in tedious analysis and explanations, leaving it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The adult Leo travels back in time, reminiscing on the events that would come to shape his life.

Taking advantage of Leo's growing obsession with her, Marian uses Leo as a go-between to take messages between her and her lover, Ted Burgess, a farmer who lives in an outhouse on the grounds. That Leo is putty in Marian's hands is considerably aided by the fact that Leo's background is decidedly middle-class and that he's far less sophisticated and worldly than, perhaps, his upper-class equivalent would be.

Unaware of what really goes on between Marian and Ted, it nevertheless begins to dawn on Leo that it is something untoward, particularly as he finds out that Marian is supposed to become engaged to the wealthy Viscount Trimingham. Just like mercury's rising on the thermometer as the weather gets hotter and hotter, so Leo's duties as mercury also become ever more frequent, urgent, and dangerous.

Things eventually come to their tragic head, with - perhaps predictably - Leo and Ted as their primary victims as the members of the upper class use the subordinate status of both to mend their chipped facade in order to keep up appearances.

Hartley's book is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is elegiac, nostalgic without ever falling into the trap of glorification. It is a reminiscence, a reflection, and full of symbolism, written in beautiful, elegant English that aptly captures the stimmung at the turn of the century.

Julie Christie as Marian in Losey's The Go-Between (UK 1970)

Later turned into a film, The Go-Between was released in the US well-nigh 30 years ago, in November 1971. It was to be one of Losey's best films and, perhaps, one of the best films ever to come out of the UK - and that is saying a lot. Losey's adaptation of Hartley's novel can hardly be improved upon. Though two entirely different entities, I myself can't help thinking of the film when reading the book. The film's images have burnt themselves into my memory since the visual language, the imagery, Losey chose for his adaptation are quite simply flawless for he captured the spirit and tone of Hartley's novel to perfection.

Alan Bates as Ted Burgess, Dominic Guard as Leo

Similarly the casting. In hindsight it seems of course inconceivable that Losey should have picked anyone but Julie Christie and Alan Bates for the leading roles. Still, there were plenty of other actresses and actors about whom Losey may have chosen over Christie and Bates. Yet, both are the epitome of their respective characters. Christie's sheer beauty, her ability to convey the subtlest hints of arrogance and condescension all fit Marian to a 't'. The same goes for Alan Bates who exudes a masculine, carnal, sexuality which makes Marian's longing and desire for him more than understandable.

While Gerry Fisher's cinematography may be considered conventional, the images, frames, and colours nevertheless match Leo's nostalgic reminiscence something which is highlighted by Michel Legrand's score. Interestingly, a year later Legrand would write the score to Summer of 42, another film that revolves around the remembrance of a male adult whose mind travels back to his childhood.

And last but not least it must be mentioned that the screenplay to The Go-Between was written by none other than the long-time Losey collaborator and future Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter. Pinter came up with a very clever device to underscore the relevance events in a person's childhood have for their future and to demonstrate the bearing our past has on the rest of our lives.

The Go-Between deservedly won the Palme d'Or at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. In the BFI list of the Best British Films of all-time it currently ranges at Nr. 53 while Julie Christie remains the only actress who appears in a total of 6 films on that list.

Julie Christie, Alan Bates in The Go-Between

The Go-Between is available on Amazon.