‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’: so begins The Go-Between, the BBC adaptation based on the novel by L.P. Hartley. Lifting the opening lines of the novel verbatim the adaptation immediately forges a direct link to its source text, but refreshingly, as all good adaptations should, casts its own unique vision of the world originally seen in Hartley’s novel.
An older Leo (Jim Broadbent) begins a journey; both physically and mentally. As he travels back to a location from his past, he meditates upon the events that took place there fifty years prior, events that he has struggled to come to terms with.
A young Leo (wonderfully played by Jack Hollington) is invited to spend the summer with his substantially wealthier friend Marcus. Leo finds the lifestyle of the Maudsley family intoxicating, a world in which he is delighted to be privy too, yet is all too aware of his own inferior social status. Leo quickly attaches himself to the coquettish Marian Maudsley (Joanna Vanderham), Marcus’ older sister. Marian, taking pity on Leo, aids his initiation, offering to purchase him more suitable summer clothes upon noting his heavy winter clothing and realising he has nothing else to wear.
This rather wonderful metaphor for how Leo is feeling in his new surroundings: struggling to breathe or cope, sets in motion an intimate friendship between the two, with Leo’s affection stemming from both admiration and burgeoning sexuality. Leo, feeling in Marian’s debt as well as desiring to please her, begins to run errands for her, delivering letters to and from local farmer Ted Burgess (Ben Batt). Whilst it is all too apparent that Marian and Ted are embroiled in an affair, Leo either naively or willingly, does not realise the true nature of these letters initially but quickly understands the risks of such an endeavour, laying the foundations for tragedy.
The narrative may seem like a rather run of the mill period drama involving social status and forbidden love, but The Go-Between is so much more than that. Much of this elevated status stems from the sublime cinematography. Wistfully shot, The Go-Between harks to moments of Malick in its pondering of nature as the camera effortlessly glides through trees and vegetation: and yet, it’s not simply Malickian. There is an edge to The Go-Between, a hardness as Leo bitterly remembers the past. It is these moments, tinged with guilt, which made me think of Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights, particularly a shot which details the wings of a butterfly. The music too, subtle, never intrusive, adds to the sense of drama and tragedy. A scene in which Leo is compelled to sing for his guests is particularly effective, contrasting Leo’s innocent nature which the deceit in which he plays a fundamental role.
The cast is particularly impressive. Hollington, as the young Leo, is heartbreaking; trapped between his loyalty to Marian and his sense of justice, he agonises over his part in the affair. Vanderham too, is rather brilliant, her Marian manipulative yet retaining empathy as she battles the restrictions society has pressed upon her.
The events of The Go-Between will, much like they have done to their literary narrator, stay with you long after the credits have ended: beautifully languid, much like the summer in which the events take place.