The last collaboration between director Joseph Losey and playwright Harold Pinter to be filmed, The Go-Between is perhaps most interesting as an example of a moment in the development of the costume film, a genre as central to British cinema as the Western is for Hollywood. That significance is probably even more true today than when the film was made, as over-stuffed Masterpiece Theatre exports define how a period film should look and feel—and what Britain presumably does best.
In its fastidious attention to period details, The Go Between is clearly part of that tradition. What sets it apart from the manicured preciousness of the average British costume film or television series, however, is that the design serves a strong directorial conception. Instead of primly decorating the story with archaeologically correct, but otherwise uninteresting bric-a-brac, the mise-en-scène combines with conscious formality to dominate the action, immersing the viewer to a point where the details can be forgotten and overlooked.
Based on L.P. Hartley’s novel, the story centers on Leo Colston (Dominic Guard) a middle-class adolescent staying with the family of his rich friend Marcus (Richard Gibson) during a hot Victorian summer. Leo is doubly awed, first by the lush surroundings, then even more forcefully by the allure of Marcus’s older sister, Miriam (Julie Christie). Leo thereby gets enmeshed in Miriam’s illicit affair with tenant farmer Ted Burgess (Alan Bates). It’s a story of sexual awakening, but with a twist: less about “the summer Leo becomes a man,” The Go Between demonstrates the capacity of precocious experience to traumatize and emasculate.
All of this is saturated with “unnecessary” (in plot terms) period atmosphere: croquet on the lawn, a lengthy game of cricket, the formality of the least significant meal, long, languorous afternoons, and on and on. A vanished world of stately ritual and hierarchical interaction is evoked out of individually trivial things which, when taken for granted and allowed to wrap around events like a blanket of sensual solace, cumulatively create an enveloping world. It is a realism that uses imagery not just for its “correct” surface appearance, but to create an experiential totality.
No doubt this approach results as much from the film making moment as the director’s intentions. Craft was less important than immediacy in the post-New Wave film making world. In fact, much of the film making verges on the rough. But whatever polish is lost is amply compensated for with a sense that we are witnesses as the story unfolds, not spectators at a passively perfect parade.
The contemporary viewer may find the less than flawless technique occasionally intrusive. Nonetheless, the roughness, by allowing for immediate emotional involvement at the expense of sheen, heightens the story’s tragic view of experience. The Go-Between doesn’t make up the past, it conjures it. For a brief moment, the British costume film transcended archaeological perfection to recreate a way of life.