“You came out of the blue to make us happy. And we made you happy, didn’t we? We trusted you with our great treasure. You might never have known what it was. You might have gone through life without knowing. Isn’t that so? You see, you can tell him, Leo. You can tell him everything, just as it was. Hugh was as true as steel. He wouldn’t hear a word against me. But everybody wanted to know us of course. I was Lady Trimingham, you see? I still am. There is no other… Remember how you loved taking our messages? Bringing us together and making us happy? Well, this is another errand of love. And the last time I shall ever ask you to be our postman. Our love was a beautiful thing, wasn’t it? Tell him he can feel proud to be descended from our union. A child of so much happiness and beauty.”
We’re always the outsider in The Go-Between (1970). As much of a naïve spectator as Leo Colston (Dominic Guard), our point of view is relegated to almost peripheral; in one of the few scenes where Marian and Ted must interact but still keep face, our perspective is of the future; the film, entrenched in retrospection, like those half-forgotten memories of childhood that gain meaning through our experience. Seeing Marian and Ted up on the stage for “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes” is an entirely subjective viewpoint. The film never attempts to catalogue their shared thoughts and individual reasoning. Of course, it makes sense that they did what they did; their actions are rational responses to sexual attraction across class boundaries—and all of the deceitfulness on Marian’s part is due largely to her mother’s class-conservativism and omnipotence. Losey jumps forward in time in the middle of the scene as an older Leo goes to visit Marian in her old age. Ted’s beautiful singing voice continues on the soundtrack. Visiting her after it’s too late to fix anything; Leo’s seeking some kind of entry-point into his image of her, in which he has lived his entire life.
“Postman” eternalfor his best friend’s older sister, Marian (Julie Christie) and the local farmer with whom she’s having an affair, Leo is suspended in time. Postman: such an arbitrary title to give a young boy so racked with guilt for betraying his friend—and Marian’s fiancé—accommodating and friendly Viscount Hugh Trimingham (played by Edward Fox). The farmer Ted Burgess, a strong, salt-of-the-earth rake, discovering Leo playing in one of his haystacks, explodes with anger at first and then, as he recognises the boy, whom he associates with the Maudley family (his neighbours and social superiors), quells his wrath and carries the boy inside to tend his knee. The treatment of Burgess (and his portrayal by the great Alan Bates) sidesteps the obviousness of his character’s appeal. Rather than play up his lower-class mystery for the audience, and, by extension, us, Ted’s character, though full-bodied, is living in another narrative. His interactions with our perspective (i.e. Leo’s and the Maudsley’s) are less representations of the way he’s described by his social superiors in their hushed tones, and more a confident, manipulative, tough man who not only resists Leo’s naïve questioning, but any advance he makes on their friendship. Not like Marian, who embraces Leo as a playmate when nobody else will, only to reject him selfishly, manipulate him as her go-between, and eventually destroy him forever.
There is, however, a clear distinction between young Marian and old Marian (now Lady Trimingham). As a young woman, Marian was (or seemed) fully aware of the implications of her actions—perhaps not so obviously with respect to Leo, but towards her place in society and her family—and, since the film gradually hints of a reunion between Marian and Leo through intermittent flashforwards escalating in length (this structure is missing in the book), we begin to wonder whether Leo will be able to reconcile his search for lost time with the woman responsible for banishing him to this temporal exile.
Tragically, the final scenes serve up no such release for Leo, unveiling only a new Marian; a self-deceptive, monstrous distortion of her younger self, her frail voice half-bitterly speaking the words that close the film—and that I’ve quoted here—steeped in duplicitousness, as if she’s finally started to believe her own lies. Where her tone was once wistful but assured (“Why don’t you marry Ted? / I can’t… I can’t, can’t you see why? / Well, why are you marrying Hugh? / Because I must. I’ve got to.”), her situation soon led her to denial. Reminding herself of the impossibility of her relationship with Ted was of utmost importance, and yet in later life (and later in the movie) she does little to relate to reality, or to empathise with an older Leo, who—as embodied so subtly and brilliantly by Michael Redgrave—is pleading for a return from having long been set adrift.
Joseph Losey never allows us to step out of a very specific line of vision, sidestepping conventional empathy with the romance plot that the film as we see it from the outside is purportedly “about” and dispelling a great deal of the emotional peaks in the story—Marian and Ted’s first rendezvous, Mrs. Maudsley’s suspicion and later reproval and rejection of her daughter’s affair, Ted’s suicide, or Marian’s evolution from star-crossed lover to dutiful but damaged Lady Trimingham—first as half-seen pieces of Leo’s worldview and later as symbolic moments that terrorize and stunt him emotionally. As young Leo fades into older, despondent Leo, so too do the affair and Mrs. Maudsley, his friend Marcus and his questions about life and love and sex, Ted is seen for an instant, slumped over, blood at his feet, a shotgun in his hand. For Leo, and by extension the audience, the violence of Mrs. Maudley’s wrath, the discovery of Marian and Ted having sex, and the guilt he feels at Ted’s death (all of which we observe in shorter and shorter moments, vanishing as a half-remembered childhood memory) culminates in the final scene as great tragedy not because all of this has ruined his life, but because his cry for rescue to Marian is answered only by another painful request: to once again fulfil his duties as a postman.