The Go-Between review: a sad and beautiful story of frustrated love

Ben Dowell is rather taken with the BBC’s film of LP Hartley’s novel – but is a little puzzled that it was shown at the same time as the opening episode of the new series of Downton Abbey...

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What a beautiful film that was.

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Scriptwriter Adrian Hodges’ lush, lavish, nuanced adaptation of L.P Hartley’s 1953 book was a beautiful examination of love and growing up set in a breathtakingly beautiful summer in 1900.

God knows why it was scheduled against Downton tonight, but that’s the nature of the ITV/BBC posturing these days. The schedulers get to flex their muscles but the viewer loses out.  

Still, it was great if you caught it and could resist the start of our final examination of the goings on in Crawley household over on ITV.

The Go-Between was as slow and languid as the long hot summer that young Leo (Jack Hollington, below) spent with his wealthy school friend Denys – weeks of heat that Leo appeared to conjur from his necromancy books on his first night in the big house. (Yes, his fondness for casting spells was never really explained).

But after that, well, he was powerless and prey to the whims and machinations of Joanna Vanderham’s Marian, beautiful young daughter of the titled family, and her farmer lover Burgess (Ben Batt). They started using him to send messages to each other, an enterprise we knew was doomed to failure.

It’s not an especially well-known book (although many people will know its most famous phrase “the past is a foreign country” used by the older Leo played by Jim Broadbent we met at the beginning).

But as a story which speaks eloquently about the cruelty towards children in bygone days it should be better known.

What we got was not the traditional trope of youngsters thrashed senseless but a rewarding, sustained focus on Leo’s far more deadly diet of emotional inconsiderateness. Marian was guilty of this for drawing Leo into her affair, using her allure and his obvious infatuation with her to get him to send messages to Burgess. Burgess for going along with it and befriending the boy with lethal consequences. It was a compelling study in a world where affection is largely a pretence, and young Leo’s slow realisation of this fact.

In fact, the person who seemed fondest of the boy was the slightly doltish Trimingham, the disfigured Boer War veteran played by Stephen Campbell Moore who still had his eyes on the young lad’s usefulness with regard to his conquest of Marian coupled with a vague sense that something was amiss.

It was desperately sad and affecting. And my Peter Travis’ direction was beautiful – full of sun-drenched fields (where Burgess even enjoyed a Poldark-style scything moment) and long white dresses. At times Marian looked like she had come out of a Monet painting.

Much of it was shot from below, as if we were forced to join Leo in making sense of this world from the child’s perspective, trying to work out adult complexities young Leo never had explained to him.

There was an abiding, oppressive sense of doom, with talk of distant duels in the family’s history and beautiful incidental music that complemented and deepened the sense of tragedy, realised most awfully at the end in Burgess’ suicide when the heavens literally opened. This was sumptuous, involving, unforgettable drama that stayed with you.

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If only it hadn’t been forced to compete with Downton.