When I reviewed The King's Speech many months ago, I commented that "Merchant Ivory and their derivatives handled their stories with an emphasis on repression, creating scenes where humour was seldom tolerated and private anguish emphasised almost to the point of tedium." While particularly true of the Merchant Ivory stable, this criticism could easily be applied to The Go-Between, a film whose initial promise is ultimately strangled by poor storytelling and irritating characterisation.
There's no denying that The Go-Between is good-looking. The film is shot by Gerry Fisher, who would later shoot William Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration and Aces High, a WWI drama starring Malcolm McDowell whose aerial scenes were reused in the final series of Blackadder. It is replete with painterly shots of huge fields, wide lakes and manicured lawns, which recall the landscapes of John Constable. The colour palette is quite bright for a period drama, and the summer setting invites us in.
However, there is only so much of this visual poetry we can take before we start hankering for something resembling a plot. It is possible to make a slow, painterly film which also has narrative and thematic legs - Barry Lyndon being the best and most obvious example. Stanley Kubrick's 18th-century epic about ambition, materialism, war and honour manages to capture the pace of the past without boring us to tears in the process, something which The Go-Between struggles to do.
It may be that the story of The Go-Between is more nuanced and involving as a piece of literature. A great deal many books rely so greatly on the subtleties of language that they are not naturally suited to visual media, whether film or television. Adaptations of Dickens or Bronte have generally got around this because the language is descriptive enough to create a ravishing visual world, and because there is an expectation with period drama that it once took an entire sentence to convey what we now say in a word.
With The Go-Between, however, this approach doesn't entirely hold water. Harold Pinter's screenplay is largely faithful to L. P. Hartley's novel; considering Pinter's talent as a screenwriter, this would suggest that the story itself may be at fault. We spend an awfully long time waiting for anything to happen, and at 111 minutes the film is far too long for what is in essence quite a simple story. It attempts to compensate for this by inserting short snippets of Leo as an adult, talking to the now-elderly Marian. But there is not enough time devoted to these scenes in the main section of the film: they don't gain any meaning until the very end, in which case the sensible thing would have been to unite them as a separate epilogue.
The Go-Between is essentially a coming-of-age story about forbidden or unrequited love. Leo's attraction towards Marian, played by Julie Christie, is echoed in Marian's relationship with Ted Burgess (Alan Bates), insofar as neither relationship can ever really come to fruition. Marian is deeply fond of Leo, and trusts him to deliver her messages to Ted, but in the end she is using him, stringing him along with little tasks which he thinks are winning her favour.
As Leo grows to understand his role as "postman", he supposedly passes from a childlike adoration of women to a deeper understanding of the fairer sex. He becomes curious about how people express their love, pressing Ted Burgess to explain to him what "spooning" is. But unlike a more modern coming-of-age story, in which the male hero emerges wiser and more rounded in his view of women, Leo's experiences put him off women altogether; when he meets Marian again, he has become a shy, withered old man who never married. One could almost argue that The Go-Between is misogynist in its characterisation of Marian, whose so-called love is as poisonous as the deadly nightshade growing in her garden.
Marian points to another problem with The Go-Between, namely the irritable nature of several characters. This is particularly the case with Julie Christie, who is a million miles from her more intriguing performance in Don't Look Now two years later. Here she is spoilt, stuck up and constantly preening, taking a repulsive pleasure in quietly belittling those around her. When Leo refuses to take her message, she throws a hissy fit, calling him ungrateful and treating him no better than the mud on her shoes. Whatever the intentions of Hartley or Pinter, we quickly lose patience with her, to the point where we almost stop caring about her relationship with Burgess.
The other characters fare somewhat better, if only because they are so innocuous that we can't be bothered getting cross at them. Michael Gough looks the part as the father of the house, but his role and dialogue are very repetitive; his part becomes reduced to asking Leo if he is enjoying himself, while examining his barometer in the garden. Edward Fox is once again playing himself, letting the huge scar on his face do most of the acting, while Michael Redgrave gets far too little screen time. The only cast members who make any resounding impression are Alan Bates, who has charisma coming out of his ears, and the BAFTA-winning Margaret Leighton, who eventually comes into her own after spending most of the film just idly scowling.
Like many period dramas, The Go-Between is also problematic in its rose-tinted view of the upper classes and its suspect attitude towards privilege. The central question in any character drama is this: why should we care about these people? It takes a long time to find any kind of satisfying answer, considering that the characters consider a croquet match to be arduous and constantly moan about the rain. In one early scene Leo remarks that he was born under Mercury, and Edward Fox tells him about Mercury being the messenger to the gods - a snooty comment which underscores their treatment of Leo is little more than an impressionable plaything.
There are also a number of moments in The Go-Between which are unintentionally funny. The oddities of Edwardian English are played so unknowingly straight, and repeated so often, that the film's portrayal of the upper classes becomes a borderline parody. It's hard not to snigger at the near-constant mentions of bathing suits or the repeated comments of "What cheek!" when Burgess is found swimming in the river. At least with Chariots of Fire there was something meaty to chew on beneath all the "I say!"s and "What-ho!"s.
Despite all these problems, The Go-Between just manages to scrape through once we stop thinking of it as anything more than tosh. Once we accept that the landscape and the rendering of rural England are the most that the film has to offer, we start to relax into it a little more and enjoy it almost in spite of its flaws. The cricket match is long and slow but quite pleasantly assembled, and although Dominic Guard's singing is toe-curling, the scene with Bates and Christie on the piano is perfectly passable.
In the midst of all this gaiety, the film almost totally redeems itself with one of its final scenes. The confrontation in the haystack, where Marian's mother catches her with Bates, finds Pinter firing on all cylinders. The conversations between her and Leo beforehand contain much of his famously menacing wordplay, and Joseph Losey's camerawork is a lot more adept. The intense feeling of betrayal summed up in the silent exchange of glance is handled very well, undone only by a lazy cut to the present day.
The Go-Between is a disappointing period drama which squanders a potentially interesting premise. Its myriad flaws with characterisation, storytelling and direction would normally produce a feeling of anger to match the disappointment. But ultimately it is too innocuous and escapist to be worth getting frustrated about. In the end the film is a beautiful series of landscapes with unlikeable, uninteresting people scattered therein. It's pretty, but it's also pretty dull.