Is it just child’s play, or an adult affair?
Image: Twentieth Century Fox
If ever proof were needed that films do not have to be bloody to be scary, The Innocents would be Exhibit A. Based on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, and shot through with a bubbling undercurrent of aberrant sexuality (grace, no doubt, à Truman Capote, who helped with the script), the film is a masterpiece of subtle chills.
The deceptively simple plot sees repressed young vicar’s daughter Miss Giddens taking on the care of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, who live in a huge country house with only servants and the housekeeper for company, their guardian uncle being happy with his bachelor lifestyle in the city. Initially it seems idyllic, as Miss Giddens makes friends with the captivating Flora and relishes life in a big house. However, Miles’ return from school, from which he has been expelled for polluting the minds of his peers, heralds the start of a descent into psychological terror for Miss Giddens, as she slowly uncovers the story of what happened to the last governess and her lover.
The governess, Miss Jessel, fell in love with the rugged and abusive gardener, Peter Quint, and their torrid affair took hold of the residents of the house, only abating with their deaths (his an accident, hers suicide). Upon hearing that the couple may have exposed the children to their depraved acts, and that Miles idolised Quint, Miss Giddens decides that the precocious, secretive children have been possessed by the spirits of the dead lovers, and resolves to rescue their souls.
As with all the best ghost stories, The Innocents does not give firm answers to the questions it poses, and the viewer is left to make up their own mind. From the off we know that Miss Giddens is an imaginative young woman, and immediately we begin to question whether the events are genuinely supernatural in nature, or merely vivid hallucinations borne of a repressed mind encountering ideas of overt sexuality. As she starts working on the children in an effort to ‘save’ them, Miss Giddens herself becomes a determined, even dangerous, figure who may just be doing more harm than she knows.
The film relies heavily on suggestion and fear of the unknown. We are never told explicitly what Quint and Miss Jessel got up to, although we get several strong hints, nor do we ever discover the true nature of their relationships with the children. Although we see them appear as apparitions to Miss Giddens, we never know whether these visions are shared by the other characters. The ghosts’ appearances are handled with a subtlety which makes them all the more terrifying, such as when Peter Wyngarde’s maliciously evil Quint leers at Miss Giddens through the window. There is no need here for jumpy editing to force a scare – instead Clayton and the actors draw a prolonged feeling of dread from the scene, relishing the governess’s fear and the ghostly gardener’s relentless and somehow unreadable advance (or should that be advances?).
Deborah Kerr is the focal point of the film, and never disappoints. Her Miss Giddens is at once mature and childlike, sexual and sexless. She responds with girlish embarrassment to the compliments of Miles and Flora’s absent uncle, yet shows a darker sensuality towards Miles, in whom she sees the spirit of Peter Quint. There is a particularly disquieting moment in which a goodnight kiss between the two lingers and becomes something worryingly perverse. That all this got past the censors of 1961 is a marvel. Martin Stephens brilliantly pulls off the complex character of Miles, and while Pamela Franklin’s Flora isn’t quite as affecting (her brilliant turn in The Nanny was when she really came into her own as an actress), both are wonderfully uncanny, jumping between impossibly sweet and incredibly unnerving with aplomb.
Disturbing and dark, The Innocents only grows in stature with, and demands, repeated viewings.