Tony Mastroianni Review Collection
"Go-Between" May Be Classic
Cleveland Press December 23, 1971
"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."
These are the opening lines of "The Go-Between," a marvelous and near-perfect movie. They are the words of an old man recollecting the past. You hear him but you don't see him. What you see is the horse-drawn carriage moving swiftly across the English countryside, through the shimmering heat of a summer's day in 1900.
They are evocative words that set you up, program your feelings and responses to all that is about to happen.
This is the memory of a summer spent when the speaker was nearly 13, a boy of slim means invited to spend a few weeks with a school chum and his wealthy, upper class family.
Life is beautiful among the aristocrats in Edwardian England, all elegance and indolence. Young ladies rest in hammocks, parasols shielding them from the sun. Young men read to them. Servants wait on them.
This is the veneer that director Joseph Losey and screen writer Harold Pinter scratch to show that all is not pretty underneath. They don't scratch noisily or with abandon. They understate, they suggest and they do it all economically; not a wasted word, not a wasted scene.
The lad, Leo (Dominic Guard), is miserable in his one suit (wool) in the 83 degree heat, but he swelters silently, pretending that he has other clothes but they are home. Only his friend's sister Marian (Julie Christie) takes pity on him and takes him into the village to buy him a linen suit.
The girl has an ulterior motive (she continues to have ulterior motives) in her kindness to the boy. While in the village she meets her lover, Ted Burgess (Alan Bates), a tenant farmer on her family's property.
Her kindness, her pointed favoritism toward the boy continue as she turns him into a messenger, carrying letters to the farmer.
There are stirrings within the boy, a nameless and not understood first rapture that turns into the terrible poignancy of innocence betrayed.
The lady of the manor (Margaret Leighton) is not so dotty as she seems with her fluttering questions about "what shall we do today?" And the boy doubts the innocence of his mission once Marian is betrothed to a bored young nobleman (Edward Fox).
Betrayal and discovery are swift and traumatic. The full effects continue a generation later in the recollections of Leo (Michael Redgrave) grown old.
The picture is one long flashback with an occasional flash forward that is almost subliminal at first -- a quick glimpse of rain in all that sun, paved roads and autos and then all are gone. The moments become longer until finally it is all in the present, with Redgrave the boy grown old, but still sensitive, still suffering.
Perhaps because Pinter was working with another source, a novel, his screenplay is far less enigmatic than his stage works. An obliqueness remains however and it is complemented by Losey's direction which gives the movie a look both lean and languorous.
All is not what it seems, but neither Losey nor Pinter is heavy handed about saying so. The boy is treated so kindly, yet so patronizingly. Beneath the boredom of the elders there is passion and hate. Marian is such a lady but such a tramp underneath it all. The rough, easy-living, easy-loving farmer turns out to have deep and noble feelings.
From his performers, Losey has elicited careful, precise performances. If Miss Christie and Bates seem to have smaller-than-usual roles as the lovers, remember this is a boy's eye view. Both are excellent.
Few actresses are as skillful as Margaret Leighton. Watch that skill at work as she turns from the apparent fluttery, weak old lady to a raging woman with a will of tempered steel. As for young Dominic Guard, there have been few juvenile performances around to equal it.
Michel Legrand's background music sounds properly baroque and adds to the feeling of distance, drama and a trace of mystery.
"The Go-Between" is a movie that can easily be revisited, a film that deserves to become a classic. Shakespearean comedies which go on and on, Moliere's plays are blessedly brief.