United Kingdom, 1971
Directed by Joseph Losey
With Dominic Guard (Leo Colston as a child), Julie Christie (Marian Maudsley), Alan Bates (Ted Burgess), Margaret Leighton (Mrs. Maudsley), Michael Gough (Mr. Maudsley), Richard Gibson (Marcus Maudsley), Edward Fox (Hugh Trimingham), Michael Redgrave (Leo Colston as an adult)
“There are curses and curses”, the boy authoritatively claims to the bemused and amused adults sitting at the table. It is kids’ stuff: Leo Colston has been portrayed by his schoolmate Marcus Maudsley, whose family has taken in the boy at their Norfolk estate for part of the summer vacation, as a gifted magician able of casting highly successful, and chilling, spells, part of the fancies, the superstitions, the odd beliefs, and just the personal, extraordinary achievements that schoolmates locked in distant, stern boarding schools like to talk about during short recesses and long nights, in the hope of impressing each other and as they struggle on the threshold between childhood’s magic and quiet world and the challenges and transformations of the teenage age. But stepping in the sprawling, elegant, mansion has actually meant for Leo Colston that he would be himself cursed, with unpredictable, life-changing consequences.
By the time he gives his explanation, he has already been disturbed and riveted. Quick to vanish was the childish excitement of the first sequence, with the two boys scurrying up and down the narrow staircase, chasing each other mischievously while Leo Colston marvels at the splendor he has been invited to live in, a world away from his social origins: as soon as he gets out, scuffling with Marcus in the broad daylight in the large porch, his attention is right away seized by a vision, something out there arrests him, and the camera. It is a woman languorously lying on a hammock, an apparition as gorgeous as unexpected, radiant in her exquisitely white dress, enigmatic in her casual somnolence, as she barely open eyes to the world, clearly taken with the romantic prose a friend is reading aloud from a novel. Attitudes and words already hint at a trouble coming from something deep in the body and the soul, a sexual, primal riddle baffling the kid.
Marian Maudsley thrills the young man even more when she offers to buy him clothes better suited to the warm weather than what his mother has packed in his luggage. He is captivated under her smiling, winning beauty and her own mischievous side, and when later she tells a fib, he is pleased to stand by her word, eager to oblige, feeling ebullient at his own boldness and chivalry – and starting, without suspecting it, a collaboration whose purpose is indeed to deceive the matriarch running the estate, the severe mother of Marian and Marcus, Leo’s gracious hostess, Mrs. Maudsley – there is, by the way, a Mr. Maudsley, but he keeps himself safe from the world and the troubles of family life and domesticity by sticking to his upper-class, masculine routine, though he is not fully unaware that dangers may be around the corner.
It was not entirely clear, at this early point of the narrative, what shape the collaboration could take in the eyes of Marian. Things get clearer and more crucial when she learns he has befriended a neighbor, farmer Ted Burgess: the boy delivers a message, and thus would become the go-between between the two adults. It was a matter of chance, in fact: soon after the start of their sojourn Marcus catches the measles, and thus Leo must find ways to have fun on his own. He decides to roam the countryside: his initial movement is shot in a long shot by a camera that swiftly, spectacularly tracks out, so the boy becomes a mere figure getting lost in a mass of verdure, a point overwhelmed by a world decidedly too big and complex for him. His walk lands him decisively in the farm of Ted Burgess, where he gets hurt and is looked after by the boorish, fit, awesome male worker. To thanks the farmer the boy offers to do him any favor: hence comes the demand of carrying a letter to Marian Maudsley.
Many would follow. Leo is first glad to help both neighbors to communicate – that he must keep his mission secret only adds to the excitement. He also becomes a go-between between Marian Maudsley and a fellow aristocrat spending summertime with the Maudsleys, Trimingham: the dapper but cold man, badly scarred by his participation to the Boer War, is rather amused by the boy and notes how Marian Maudsley seems closer to Leo than to him. Leo finds himself very busy and happy, till Marcus recovers from his bout of illness. To be a secret messenger would be more difficult, but he fails to make his beloved hostess and the farmer understand the trouble. And he starts to realize something bigger than what he thought is playing: opening an envelope and learning that Trimingham is a fiancé would stoke a malaise torturing him, even more as it seems he does feel something deep and extraordinary for Marian Maudsley.
The playful adventure becomes a harsh lesson on love, a sentimental and sexual education coming out of the blue and yet standing as inevitable and natural given his age. Leo would try to get out of what he senses is a trap: but his mother would not take him back earlier than planned and Marian’s mother would prove far too perceptive, ruthless, and even reckless. The summer story ends in tears and blood, scandal and angst.
The fateful conclusion happens on the only day of this odd Norfolk vacation when the weather is not fair, but instead is shaken by a huge thunderstorm. Earlier, another frightening element stopped short the two boys as they were running across the estate’s old garden; they have in fact resumed the mad chase started in the staircase that the vision of Marian briefly suspended; but it is frozen by the huge plant standing in their way and that Leo immediately recognized as a venomous plant, Atropa Belladonna. In this narrative so steeped into Englishness, the charms and conventions of the English countryside at the turn of the 20th century, nature has always an ominous edge, looking like an artful, riveting a deception: a pleasant world that is actually treacherous. The space around the Maudsley mansion is no Garden of Eden or safe refuge, neither is it the playground children yearn for nor the quiet, innocuous entertainment the upper-class wish it to be (and prove the point with fantastic picnics or exciting rides). It is also a battleground, where roaming human souls struggle to impose their views and desires.
The conflict at the heart of the tragic story of Leo pits a very natural instinct, the urge for sexual pleasure and sentimental fulfillment, against a more social instinct, the respect for social hierarchy and decorum. It befits the late Victorian period when the story takes place, a time when worries and doubts start corroding the moral and social certainties of the more triumphant moment of the Victorian period, and feelings about class and order, and the moral spin put on them, may be changing. The conflict is readily embodied in the relation between mother and daughter, the latter looking for her happiness, the former clinging to principles, and it is conveyed through the eyes and the emotions they contain. Vacant stares, intense gazes directed at the other or swiftly averted, scrutinizing glances, or worried looks reveal early on and then highlight the tension between the daughter pining for pleasure and the mother distrusting her child. Their observation by the camera follows a subtle crescendo till the final, bitter, hysterical confrontation, when Mrs. Maudsley at long last can unmask and humble Marian Maudsley – the crisis brings the narrative, the extraordinary sojourn of Leo in a milieu so different from his origins, to an abrupt end and feels like a moral and social apocalypse that has always been in the coming, unavoidable and terrifying (tellingly, both the boy and the farmer are forced to hide their faces, and gazes, away during the confrontation; neither the male lover who is physically coming nor the boy who eventually finds out what could really mean “spooning” are allowed by the women who are then grasping their bodies to see plainly and to confront the hatred and defiance sex has been inspiring to these women).
From the warm pictures of the narrative seep a stranger, blueish, dull world lying at a distance. This second stream of pictures seems at first to tell the story of a trip, then images get mixed up and chronology looks elusive, before slowly things get an order and make sense. Decades after the facts, an older Leo Colston goes back in Norfolk and has a chat with Lady Trimingham, née Marian Maudsley. If the source novel of Leslie Poles Hartley was essentially the recollection of a time past and lost by the narrator, that is a long flashback, screenwriter Harold Pinter and director Joseph Losey (working together for a third time after “Accident” in 1967 and “The Servant” in 1963) turn the thrust of the novel into a vibrant, present time narrative that defines a later, unexpected event, which itself redefines the wider story. As the old Leo, who did not get married, tellingly, is urged to convince Marian’s grandson not to be afraid of marrying a girl who is not from the same class, he gets the revelation of how wonderful he has been to the woman he admired – and probably had a crush for. The work of go-between did provoke a scandal and a tragedy, but allowed many moments of bliss to exist. Looking back does not mean just to mourn or to regret, but to celebrate the happiness wretched from the stifling reality. Past is ultimately cast in a more vibrant and romantic light than what the facts ever suggest: Leo’s misfortune emphasizes and vindicates the pursuit of happiness and how important it is to give life a meaning – an undoubtedly, magnificent romantic conclusion transcending the unfairness of the wider society and drawing a moving and inspiring lesson from a brutal, unsolicited sexual and sentimental education.