Upon arriving at Brandham Hall at the start of Joseph Losey’s 1971 film The Go-Between, Leo Colston (Dominic Guard as a child, Michael Redgrave as an adult) finds much to impress and even overwhelm him: the size and grandeur of the house itself, the paintings covering its walls, the shining silver arrayed in perfect neatness on its tables. He’s particularly struck, however, by two living things. The first is Marian Maudsley (Julie Christie), clad in white and half-hidden by a white parasol as she lounges in a hammock; the second is a deadly nightshade growing on the property. “Atropa belladonna,” Leo explains to his friend Marcus (Richard Gibson), Marian’s younger brother. “It’s poisonous. Every part of it is poisonous.” Beauty masking poison — a symbol, it will turn out, not simply of Marian herself, but of Brandham and upper-class English society as a whole.
It’s the summer of 1900, and Leo, just about to turn thirteen, has been invited to Brandham Hall in Norfolk as Marcus’s guest. Although the two boys attend the same boarding school, they’re not exactly social equals. Leo comes from a comparatively modest background: his father, who worked in a bank, is deceased, and finances are tight enough for Leo and his mother that they’ve considered selling off his father’s valuable book collection. Life with the affluent Maudsleys and their similarly well-to-do visitors is thus a revelation to him, and it’s hardly surprising that he often seems out of place among them, all the more so because he’s significantly younger than everybody except Marcus. The adults are polite to him, certainly — it’s their way — but the one who exhibits the most active kindness toward him is Marian.
Marian’s special interest in Leo begins when she takes him to the nearby city of Norwich and buys him a new suit, one more appropriate for the hot weather than anything he’s brought with him. His appreciation for the gift increases his adoration of the young woman behind it. “I think she’s ripping. I’d do anything for her,” he declares. As such, when he finds himself recruited to carry secret messages between Marian and tenant farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates), he considers it an honor, a chance to perform a service for her — until he reads one of them.
It’s a love letter. Leo is devastated.
In part, no doubt, jealousy is at play here, but Leo has other reasons for being upset by this discovery. For one thing, he soon learns that Marian is to marry Viscount Trimingham (Edward Fox), an affable aristocrat who encourages Leo to call him “Hugh,” though their engagement has yet to be made public; for another, a romance between an upper-class girl like Marian — virtually a goddess in the boy’s eyes — and a rough, lowly farmer like Ted is downright unthinkable to both the naive Leo and society at large.
Class, order and rules are all-important in this world. Some of these rules are harmless, even silly, as when Marcus informs Leo that he can’t wear a school cricket cap to a private match; others reek of snobbery and entitlement. At one point, for example, Marcus chastises the newly arrived Leo for folding his dirty garments and laying them over a chest. “You must leave them lying wherever they happen to fall,” he says, dropping a shirt on the floor. “The servants will pick them up; that’s what they’re for.” A little later, a group from Brandham Hall encounters Ted swimming in a body of water that borders his farm. Denys (Simon Hume-Kendall), Marcus and Marian’s brother, is somewhat uncertain how to react: “I shall just say, ‘How do you do?’ We don’t know him socially, of course, but I think I’d better be nice to him, don’t you?” Ted, too, is class-conscious. When he catches Leo sliding down the straw stack on his farm, he screams at him and threatens him with a thrashing — until he discovers that he’s a guest at the Hall, at which point he becomes all politeness and concern for the boy’s injured knee. (The idea that Leo could serve as a liaison to Marian is mixed up in his change of attitude as well.)
This sort of unexpected, unplanned meeting between the classes is rare indeed. As in everything else, there are rules, certain contexts in which a farmer or his social equal might interact with people like the Maudsleys or Lord Trimingham. Business is one; another is the annual cricket match, which literally pits the Hall against the village, albeit in the form of a game. Still, it does allow for an unprecedented level of intimacy between the two groups, especially after the match, when they gather under one roof to dine and enjoy music. In this socially sanctioned setting, Ted and Marian even get the opportunity to perform a song together — he singing, she accompanying him on the piano — but it’s a stiff and awkward affair, revealing nothing of the passion that exists between them.
Fittingly, Ted makes his first appearance in the film in the aforementioned swimming scene, wearing a bathing suit and soaking wet, while the group from Brandham Hall is still fully clothed and dry — conveying not only class differences but also the clash between nature and civilization that underlies the story. To be sure, once Ted is finished, the swimmers from Brandham get in the water and splash around, enjoying the kind of free and unrestrained behavior that they can almost never indulge in otherwise; even so, Marian frets when her hair gets wet. (Meanwhile, non-swimmer Leo, befitting his uncomfortable social position, must stand on the shore in a suit.) Summer is supposed to be a relaxed season, but in spite of the swimming, the picnics, the croquet on the lawn, a certain formality continues to reign at Brandham Hall. Everything is genteel, elegant, orderly, polite — and rather dull.
It’s no wonder, then, that the headstrong Marian is drawn to a man outside of her own stifling social circle, a rugged, virile, earthy man, quite unlike the refined Lord Trimingham. (The fact that Trimingham is the man that Marian’s family wants her to marry undoubtedly counts as a strike against him as far as she’s concerned.) To a degree, Marian and Ted are sympathetic figures, trapped as they are by their circumstances, by an uncontrollable love (or at least lust) forbidden by society. In relation to Leo, however, they can both be selfish and cruel. They know that he likes Ted and worships Marian, and so they exploit his affections, use him as a tool for their own purposes. When, after discovering the true nature of their relationship, he starts to rebel against delivering their messages, they manipulate him. “She likes you, doesn’t she?” Ted says of Marian. “You want her to like you, don’t you? You wouldn’t want her to stop liking you — no, you wouldn’t. She won’t be the same to you if you don’t take the letters.”
He suggests that Marian might cry, but when Leo does say no to her, she becomes furious and insulting instead: “You come into this house, our guest, a poor nothing out of nowhere. We take you in. We know nothing about you. We feed you, we clothe you, we make a great fuss of you. Then you have the damned cheek to say you won’t do a simple thing that any tuppenny-ha’penny ragamuffin in the street would do for nothing!” She has no regard for Leo and his feelings, except insofar as they can be bent to her own advantage. Even many decades later, when she meets him again and wants him to do another favor for her, she says, “Remember how you loved taking our messages, bringing us together and making us happy?” Has she forgotten the truth over time, was she too self-absorbed and myopic to understand how he really felt, or is she still a manipulator?
At any rate, while Leo may yet be a pawn in her hand, he’s long since lost the naivete and innocence he once had, largely as a result of his experience at Brandham Hall in what began as a seemingly idyllic summer. So, perhaps, has English society after two world wars; it’s certainly changed radically in the intervening years. As the film’s opening voiceover puts it, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
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