I had intended to begin this appraisal of the film by discussing an impulse in late '60s British cinema (and, to a lesser extent, literary fiction; c.f. Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman) to break up the stodgy conventions of the filmed period piece, contrasting Ken Russell's largely content-based strategies (the nudity in 1969's Women In Love, to give the most obvious and possibly banal example) with the daring structural gambit of this film, adapted by screenwriter Pinter from a novel by L.P. Hartley and shot by Losey in the summer of 1970. But to ascribe an impulse to break up the stodgy conventions of the period piece merely to late-'60s British cinema would, as much as it would rhyme with the overall zeitgeist of the time, be a mildly gross historical simplification. Lean's dynamic editing of Great Expectations, Powell and Pressburger's use of design, color, and jump-cuts in the period sections of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; these represented precisely the same impulse decades earlier.
Still. The specific device, introduced by Pinter according to David Caute's exhaustively detailed Losey biography A Revenge On Life, is a large part of what makes The Go-Between one of the most emotionally violent cinematic period pieces even today. The picture begins with the device, although we don't know it yet. Amid some relatively standard-issue shots of a stately manor in rural Norfolk, a stately voice intones: "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." Already, then, we know the proceedings are being mediated by a modern or more-or-less contemporary personage.
Things then unfold in typically energetic Losey style, which in and of itself breaks from many of the prerogatives of the conventional period piece. A hand-held camera follows a couple of rough-housing boys up a flight of stairs as Michel Legrand's florid piano music—mixed louder than anything else on the soundtrack, as Losey reputedly liked it—pounds out. The year is 1900; the boys are 12-year-olds Marcus (Richard Gibson) and Leo (Dominic Guard). Marcus belongs to the house; Leo is his poorer chum, invited for a summer's sojourn. Leo is immediately beguiled by Marcus' beautiful older sister Marian (Julie Christie), and Marian likes Leo, too. And soon, Marian, who's betrothed to the perfectly nice but seemingly bland Hugh (Edward Fox, his face garnished here be a scar not as grotesque as the one Hartley specifies; "He got gored by a Boer in the war," exclaims Marcus), begins using Leo to convey messages to her secret lover, Ted Burgess (Alan Bates), a tenant farmer on her family's land. All around nice guy. Ace cricket batter. Good singer at the dinner after the match. And all. But the wrong class, you know.
Everybody knows what's going on—particularly Marian's mother (Margaret Leighton), who off course can't come out and confront her daughter (yet) but who raises a wary eyebrow when Marian helpfully offers to take Leo to town to buy him a more summer-suitable outfit than the one he arrived in. Everybody, of course, but Leo, who's gone sweet on Marian, and who flushes with feelings of betrayal after he peeks at one of the letters between Ted and Marian. An amateur practitioner of "black magic," Leo concocts a curse. Things will turn out poorly.
At seemingly random interval, the film cuts, sometimes for only less than ten seconds, to show a world many years removed from the immediate story. It takes several of these intervals for us to realize that we are following an older man in a black derby, and that he's stopping at older iterations of some of the places we see in the bright August sunshine of 1900. The further into the 1900 narrative we get, the more the images from what we've now gleaned are fast-forwards begin to rhyme—as the above shot of a much older Leo, for it is he, played by Michael Redgrave, corresponds to the not-quite-next shot of young Leo observing Marian and Hugh.
These flash-forwards will eventually serve a devastating narrative function, which it would be a shame to spoil here for those who haven't seen the picture. But they do more. They (one is tempted to say "almost literally") stab holes in the screen of the period piece, vividly demonstrating what the film's opening observation concerning the past only states. And something more: the period sections of the film, in which Losey demonstrates a never-lagging virtuosity with both the moving camera and the zoom, have a directness, a liveliness that is totally sapped from its "modern" segments, which mostly consist of still medium shots. Thus is Leo's tragedy, and perhaps ours, conveyed.
This film was the last of three Pinter/Losey collaborations (the prior two being The Servant and Accident). The Region 2 version of the film available from Optimum Releasing contains a serviceable transfer with no extras. In his notes for the film Losey specified the look he wanted: "the picture should look hot and like a slightly faded Renoir or Constable" and the director was quite pleased with the results extracted by cinematographer Gerry Fisher. I don't think this DVD version quite measures up. One is loathe to make suggestions to Criterion, as one suspects they get more than enough, but the disc versions of Accident and The Servant that we have now aren't quite up to snuff either. Hence one might wish aloud for a Criterion box of the Losey/Pinters.