Infatuation creeps up slowly in The Go-Between, LP Hartley’s classic novel of 1953. It’s the summer of 1900 and 12-year-old Leo has been invited by a posher friend to the family estate in Norfolk. All the adults are entirely charming, but anxious, watchful, in a way he senses but cannot understand. “For the first day or two, I never properly took in the fact that one of ‘them’ was my host’s son and another his daughter. Blond (as they mostly were), dressed in white, swinging their tennis rackets, they looked so much alike!”
In films, though, such visual vagueness will not do. Which is why, in the 1971 Harold Pinter-Joseph Losey adaptation, the beautiful Marian, as played by Julie Christie, is first espied in her famous hammock, and why, in the BBC’s new version, Joanna Vanderham is spotted from afar, in long gloves on a stone balcony, in a shot that looks weirdly as if it comes from Game of Thrones.
When it gets going, though, the BBC film is pretty good. In the 1971 version, it’s hard to get over the fact that Christie can’t help but always be Christie. But Vanderham is soft and childlike and indefinite, which works well. Ben Batt as Ted Burgess, the Alan Bates part, is perhaps a little wooden. But that seems fine for a physical presence described by Leo as “maturity in its most undeniable form”.
By dropping the artiness of the Losey movie, the BBC lets the deeper tensions of the novel emerge: land, money, war, revolution (Marian’s intended, Viscount Trimingham, has been disfigured in the Boer war. Back home, he organises a landowners v villagers cricket match, “to keep them quiet”, as someone says).
How much does Trimingham know about what Marian’s up to? The question is asked, exquisitely and repeatedly, in the painful smiles of Stephen Campbell Moore. He’s being watched, too, by Lesley Manville as Marian’s scheming mother – “the beam of her dark eye” sliding sideways, as if hidden behind a painting in a cheesy horror film.
• The Go-Between is on BBC1 on 20 September at 9pm.