A mercurial young boy is caught betwixt childhood and his awakening sexuality; the worship of both a father figure and a woman condemns him to purgatory. Director Joseph Losey and playwright Harold Pinter conspire to dissect the emotional confusion of a fatherless young boy on the cusp of manhood while condemning the hypocritical values and rigid social hierarchy of the Belle Epoch Period.
Losey focuses the film upon Leo, a young classless boy visiting his wealthy friend’s estate for the summer, who becomes infatuated with the quixotic older sister Marian. When his host gets sick, Leo is left to his own devices and sets out to explore Norfolk, thus discovering the forbidden territory of adult desires hidden within secret notes. Losey’s mise-en-scene is wonderfully seductive, dressing complex characterizations in the guise of costumed melodrama. Leo dresses in an unfashionable buttoned-up suit in the sweltering heat, alluding to the dichotomy of class distinction (they tease him) and his own repressed emotions (he never complains). Losey also shows the poisonous seed through metaphor, as Leo wanders through the abandoned garden ripe with deadly Nightshade. In the climactic scene, the Belladonna stands guardian through the secret passage that leads to the loft where our young protagonist losses faith and innocence. The Cricket match is another example, as the “privileged” challenge the “players” and though Leo plays for the Maudsley’s it’s apparent he is enamored with the roguish Ted Burgess, who becomes a father figure to Leo and carries on a conspiratorial affair with Marian. Hugh is the “proper” husband for Marian and he seems kind enough but is not the object of her desire; his stoic visage is scarred, implying that these wounds run deep and not all problems can be masked.
Losey structures the film in flashback, and most of the story’s perspective is shown from that foreign country of the past, while the present intrudes until both coincide in sublime confrontation. The use of overlapping dialogue between tenses allows the past and present to combine until we discover Leo’s curse. Michel Legrand’s piano variations cue the film with a tempestuous passion while remaining timeless, allowing the same piece to connect both perspectives. The cinematography is exquisitely detailed and precise, capturing Norfolk in the years just before the Great War.
Leo never married because of the events of the sweltering summer so long ago when his childish game resulted in his hero’s suicide. Now, he must confront the product of Ted and Marian’s tryst…and forgive himself.
Final Grade: (A)