Adapted in 1961 from Henry James’s masterpiece of ambiguity The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents is one of the finest ghost stories in British cinema. With an intelligent screenplay by Truman Capote, William Archibald and John Mortimer; radiant cinematography by Freddie Francis (who went on to direct films for Hammer and Amicus, as well as the brilliant 70s oddity Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly); an eerie score by Georges Auric; and an extraordinary performance by Deborah Kerr, the film is a superbly crafted, subtle gem that remains deeply disturbing.
Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a repressed minister’s daughter, who has left the shelter of her father’s parish to seek employment as a governess. She is hired by a wealthy bachelor (Michael Redgrave) to look after his orphaned niece and nephew on his country estate. On arrival at Bly House, she is charmed by the delightful Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), but a number of strange occurrences lead her to believe that the children are possessed by the spirits of the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and former disreputable servant Quint (Peter Wyngarde), who died violent, mysterious deaths after a scandalous love affair.
Whether Miss Giddens is right, or whether the ghosts are simply a manifestation of her growing derangement, is left carefully undecided in the perfectly poised original story. Clayton’s film, and Kerr’s performance, seem to lean more towards the thesis of the governess’s insanity, although both beautifully maintain enough layers of ambiguity. Flora and Miles’s angelic features and apparent sweet natures are marred by unexplained behaviour, suggestive silences and intimations of cruelty, which could corroborate Miss Giddens’s fears. As for Kerr, she is both heartbreaking and frightening in the intensity of her need for love and human attachment, and her passionate desire to ‘save’ the children may well cause their destruction instead.
At the heart of the film (and of the short story) lies a deep, dark, tortured anxiety about the innocence of children and the corruption of sex. Flora and Miles may know more than they should, and it is this terrible suspicion that so troubles the inexperienced, straight-laced Miss Giddens. Nature is the symbol of that corrupting force, of the carnal urges and predatory instincts that intrude upon the civilised, polite world of tea, corsets and lace at Bly House. The idyllic garden that surrounds the house is spoiled by defilement and savagery: a cockroach comes out of the mouth of a cherubic statue, a spider eats a butterfly on the terrace and the singing of birds sometimes sounds deafeningly menacing. The ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel are feral presences that lurk outside the domesticated house, waiting to ‘contaminate’ the children. When Miss Giddens demands that the kindly housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins), reveal what she knows, the latter wonderfully obliquely explains that Quint and Jessel used the rooms on the upper floor of the house ‘as if they were woods’, confirming that the lovers belong to the world of the wild, of filthy, depraved sexuality – to Miss Giddens’s horror.
So much is suggested, and so little shown. An atmospheric tour de force, with a tremendous sense of restraint that gives the film its evocative power, The Innocents is all about hints of shameful secrets and intimations of improper desires, set among arches and vaults, dark wooden panels and spectral candle glow, with Deborah Kerr’s anguished, moving face so often the only spot of light in the darkness. And how haunting that face and its unresolved torments are.
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