Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Innocents

1961
Dir. Jack Clayton

Governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) takes up a new post at an isolated country manor. In her charge are two young children, Miles and Flora, whose uncle wants nothing to do with their upbringing and has given her full responsibility and autonomy. A series of strange occurrences at the house lead Miss Giddens to suspect that the children are possessed by the souls of their former Governess Miss Jessel and her lover, valet Peter Quint.

Is something supernatural occurring? Is there something genuinely sinister in the childish games the youngsters play with their sensitive Governess? Or is it all a product of the over-active and neurotic imagination of a repressed young woman close to losing her clutch on sanity?

Apparitions? Evils? Corruptions?

These are just a few of the provocative questions The Innocents raises.

Based on the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw and co-written by Truman Capote, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is a masterpiece of understated, ambiguous and half-glimpsed terror. The script is careful to never be anything more than suggestive – are these terrifying events real or imagined? The undeniable power the film wields is surely due to this grey, ever twisting uncertainty.



The film is peppered with warped sound effects – laughter and whispers heard in other rooms. The many nightdress-clad, creepy midnight wanderings, complete with striking shadows and candelabrums, rival those depicted in any number of Val Lewton’s brand of poetically suggestive horror films. Having said that, certain scenes prove just as creepy and startling during the day – for example when Miss Giddens spies the woman in black on the other side of the lake. One of the most chilling moments also occurs when Miss Giddens is picking flowers in the garden: birds are chirping, a melodic lullaby fills the soundtrack. Suddenly there is silence. Glancing around her, the uneasy governess notices a bug crawling out of the mouth of a cherub statue and sees the figure of a man standing on top of the tower. The moment is incredibly unnerving and induces a flurry of goose-bumps. When she goes to investigate what she saw on top of the tower, the sound of buzzing flies at the foot of the stairs evokes a startling sense of decay and corruption – something overwhelmingly unsavoury is surely afoot.

Georges Auric’s spine-tingling score features a chilling rendition of the traditional folksong O Willow Waly, perfectly epitomising the morbid and haunting mood of the film and conveying the inherent creepiness and morose nature of lullabies and nursery rhymes. The photography, courtesy of Freddie Francis, is crisp and beautiful throughout and effortlessly conveys the immense sense of isolation these characters exist in – the vast grounds and gardens and the sprawling house provide a fitting backdrop for their translucent existence: like obscure shades wandering in a dank and never-ending underworld. This film had an overwhelming influence on Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others.



An innocent game of hide and seek turns nasty when Miles grabs Miss Giddens from behind in the creepy, toy filled attic – hanging onto her a little too long for comfort, as her panic mounts. When it is her turn to hide and she does so behind the curtains, she sees a man appear at the window (whom she later identifies as the deceased Quint); in a moment that is as strangely sexual as it is unsettling. The quiet of this scene is disrupted by the almost mocking laughter of the children – do they know something or are they just playing childish games? No one else seems to see the apparitions – or at least they don’t admit to it anyway.

The house is full of secrets and an air of guilty repression fills every scene – Miss Giddens is told by Mrs Grose, the cook, that certain things are never discussed – namely the former governess or her unconventional relationship with Quint. She states that ‘Rooms were used during the day as though they were dark woods.’
This leaves no doubt in Miss Giddens’ mind that the children have been corrupted and possessed by Jessel and Quint. Miles apparently found the body of Quint and Flora was traumatised by the death of her former Governess. The trauma and upset has been allowed to fester. It comes as no surprise that the children often appear older than their years, given the horrific things they have both endured. The exchanging of glances and suspicious whispers that waft through The Innocents also help to build a stifling atmosphere, and when one character intones ‘this house is too small for secrets’, there is the faintest hint of threat and menace to the statement.

As the fragile Miss Giddens, Deborah Kerr provides a moving and understated performance, presenting us with a character that seems strangely timid, naïve and fragile from the outset, yet presents herself as friendly and optimistic. As the film progresses though, her nerves seem constantly jangled and she appears fraught with anxiety – indeed the opening shot of the film hints at the angst to come as a pair of hands clasped in prayer are then anxiously wrung. Miss Giddens becomes increasingly paranoid (or do her fears have justification?) – she feels the children are manipulating her and poking fun. They often exhibit a seemingly sadistic and cruel streak – taunting their governess. She tries to rationalise her fears, after all she now finds herself the governess of two young children in a strange new place after leading a quiet and sheltered life. Her new responsibilities may have put an overwhelming pressure on her already somewhat delicate mindset. The more she finds out about Jessel and Quint, the more she seems to find ways to justify her fears. She is chided by Flora for groaning and moaning in her sleep. Is this night fatigue brought on by nightmares or something more Fraudian? Repressed sexuality?

A few little moments that perfectly convey notions of corrupted innocence lace the film; such as when Kerr touches a bouquet of flowers in the hallway and petals fall off. This quiet moment subtly reveals the untold damage she will cause in future through her adoration and good intentions.

Martin Stephens and Pamala Franklin are excellent as Miles and Flora. They effortlessly flit from appearing quite spooky and menacing to acting like relatively normal and inquisitive children. At other times they seem much older than their years. Is their odd behaviour and mannerisms just a result of their upbringing in the company of distant adults? Or is it something more sinister? Often wistful and melancholy, they are extremely old fashioned – and at times it seems they are basically just little adults. This is highlighted in a number of scenes such as when Flora is seen looking out of her window over the moonlit garden smiling to herself as though waiting for a rendezvous with a secret love. All we see are the creepy statues under the milky moonlight. The way Miles speaks to Miss Giddens - ‘don’t be frightened my dear – it was only the wind that blew it out’ – quite often seems to be the way a much older man would address a frightened child.



Miles was sent home from boarding school when he reputedly caused ‘an injury’ to one of his classmates and is described as corrupt and contaminated – eventually by Miss Giddens herself. Is he corrupt and contaminated or just a young boy trying to get attention?

The unsettling nuances that perforate the conversations between Miles and Giddens contain an air of something sinister and inappropriate. A kiss good night that lasts a little too long becomes immensely disturbing. Now of course, this could just be the actions of a child vying for attention, and Miles acts as though it were nothing more than an innocent peck on the cheek; but the lingering shot possesses a disquieting power. It could be argued that this perhaps comes from watching the film in the current social climate where headlines all too frequently contain news about child abuse. Perhaps this was intentional though, as it is quite easy to see Miss Giddens as a deeply troubled and complex young woman. When the film is watched from this angle, it proves most unnerving. The psychological damage inflicted on the children from their increasingly frantic governess is very upsetting. The histrionics of Flora when Giddens beseeches her to look across the lake and see the woman in black are particularly memorable. We are never given clarification that the supernatural has indeed intervened, even in the film’s last moments.

Some viewers may find it frustrating, however the ambiguity of The Innocents is where its power lays; its ability to get under the skin and remain there for a long time afterwards marks it as one of the most cerebral and chilling ghost stories ever adapted for film. A dark and chilling tale, perfect for those long winter nights ahead…

6 comments:

AndrewCroskery said...

I really must watch this when I'm awake enough to enjoy it. Hadn't realisd that it was based on The Turn of the Screw, which I have but haven't got round to reading yet. Would you recommend reading book or watching film first?

James said...

Hey Andrew,
Its a pretty faithful adaptation - some of the dialogue has even been lifted from the book wholesale.
I shall leave it up to you!

Thanks for stopping by.
:)

Guinn said...

***** CAUTION: THIS COMMENT CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS FOR THE ORIGINAL STORY "The Turn of the Screw" *****

"The Innocents" really is an elegant picture; I like it enormously. Whenever I see the film on television it always moves me to go back and re-read "The Turn of the Screw," and the last time I found a very scholarly review to go with the story, a review which promoted the theory that Miss Giddens is suffering from a psychosis (probably schizophrenia) that activates under the stress of her position in the household and her unrequited infatuation with her employer, and causes her to hear the voices and see the "ghosts" of the two dead lovers. Her illness also prompts her to watch the children ceaselessly and treat them with suspicion, which as everybody knows, will derange even "normal" children who have not had the traumatic experiences that poor Miles and Flora are hinted at having suffered.

The thing that always horrified me the most about "The Turn of the Screw" is that after she had driven one child mad and frightened another to death, the governess was then given charge of other children! The narrator in the original tale indicates that she was his little sister's governess, and that she personally told him everything that had happened to Miles and Flora, from her point of view. He also implies that he was in love with her as an adolescent boy in his parents' house, and that she is dead at the time he relates the story.

Like any good horror tale, both the original story and this particular film version pose more questions than they ever pretend to answer, and leave the reader and the viewer haunted and unsettled.

James said...

Guinn thanks so much for stopping by - and for that most interesting response to my post. Any idea where you found that review of Turn of the Screw? I wouldn't mind checking that out.

I just love the fact that this film is so dense and complex - there are so many different ways of interpreting it - all just as valid as the next.

And I completely agree with you whn you said that like any good horror tale, both the original story and this particular film version pose more questions than they ever pretend to answer, and leave the reader and the viewer haunted and unsettled. N'er a truer word spoken!

Thanks again for your thoughts. :)

panavia999 said...

Thanks for a great critique of this film. It is one of my all time favorites. Just thinking about the lady in black by the lake gives me goosebumps. I too would like to read the review Guinn mentions.

James said...

Thanks for stopping by Panavia - always a pleasure. This is one of my all time favourites too. Hopefully Guinn will shed some light on that review!