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The Innocents

February 7, 2008
The Innocents, filmed by Jack Clayton in 1961 from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, starts with perhaps the classic cadence of the grand Gothic ghost story. A naive outsider, a governess, travels to a huge country house to look after two small children, with only a handful of servants for company; gradually, a tragic history is revealed, deaths in the past that have seemingly affected the woman’s young charges, and things that may or may not be going bump in the night disturb and build.

At that, many might roll their eyes and switch off, but that would be a huge mistake, for The Innocents is such a powerfully multi-layered film that it presses many more buttons than just your average pot-boiling chiller.

Deborah Kerr, always good, always note perfect, is again exemplary here, playing the repressed governess Miss Giddens with icy precision, with a hint of shock and indignation riding sparkling behind her unworldly eyes. She looks fabulous, too, with a haughty maidenly beauty which, although too old for the narrator of the original novel, works to great effect here. Her history is hinted at, a vicar’s daughter, from a remote parish, hidden from the world, setting out on her first adventure after many years of being hidden away. She enters the new universe of Bly, the grand mansion where the children live, at the behest of their can’t-be-bothered hedonistic uncle, who lives up in London and needs someone to do all the tedious looking after stuff. Shoved, virginal, in loco parentis, Miss Giddens seems stiff and impersonal in her dealings with the residents of Bly, almost like a child herself.

The servants, headed by the world-weary Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins) are kindly and accommodating, but gradually a back story emerges that worries Miss Giddens deeply. Flora is the only child at home when Miss Giddens arrives, but is soon joined by her elder brother, Miles, who, intriguingly, has been expelled from school. Why? What could he, a pre-teen ‘innocent’ have been sent down for? Prompted by the children’s uncle never to mention the previous governess, Miss Giddens discovers that she, Miss Jessel, died by taking her own life, after her lover, the animalistic footman, Quint, was killed in an accident. After a series of eerie incidents where Miss Giddens sees apparitions of the two lovers, she suspects that the children are possessed by the spirits of her dead predecessor and her sexually aggressive paramour.

We might leave it there, and many people do, enjoying a creepy ghost story with half a dozen genuinely blood-chilling moments when the ghosts, the ‘abominations’, or most tellingly ‘the others’, appear behind frosted glass or in the far distance or down a gloomy corridor. As an exercise in horror this old black and white movie, where not one drop of blood is spilt and there is no explicit cruelty, could teach our modern-day directors a trick or two. But then, ask yourself, is Miss Giddens imagining things? Do that, and the whole thing opens up and up and up and layers appear that will have you pondering every facet of the story and its telling. Is Miss Giddens overwhelmed by her new and alien responsibilities? Is she sexually repressed and so immature in the ways of the world as to transfer her pent up feelings and frustrations to a boy not even into puberty? Could the stories told by Mrs Grose about Quint and Jessel be true, or merely the extensions of Miss Giddens deepest desires?

Mrs Grose: She’d look at him as though she wanted the weight of his hand. No pride, no shame. Crawl to him on her hands and knees, she would. And him laughing at her. Such a savage laugh he had. Oh, it hurts me to remember. Bad she was, but no woman could have suffered more. A person ought to keep quiet about it.
Miss Giddens: You must tell me.
Mrs Grose: Oh, miss, there’s things I’ve seen I…I’m ashamed to say.
Miss Giddens Go on.
Mrs Grose: Rooms…used by daylight…as though they were dark woods.
Miss Giddens They didn’t care that you saw them? And the children?
Mrs Grose: I can’t say, miss. I- I don’t know what the children saw.

Or is Miles genuinely possessed by Quint, eager to grow into the same rapacious, evil creature he was, a fascination for young, developing children? Is there, as Kate Bush wrote in her song The Infant Kiss, inspired by the film, a man behind those eyes? When the boy, no more than ten or eleven relays a poem as a party piece, it is alarming to hear the words he utters with such high-spirited contempt:

What shall I sing to my lord from my window?
What shall I sing for my lord will not stay?
What shall I sing for my lord will not listen?
Where shall I go when my lord is away?

Whom shall I love when the moon is arisen?
Gone is my lord and the grave is his prison.
What shall I say when my lord comes a calling?
What shall I say when he knocks on my door?
What shall I say when his feet enter softly?
Leaving the marks of his grave on my floor.

Enter my lord. Come from your prison.
Come from your grave, for the moon is a risen.

And then he whispers out of the blackened window, to where Miss Giddens first saw Quint’s image, “Welcome…my lord”. What a shudder that produces.

All here is beautiful; the film is dressed to perfection and glisters with a creepy, heavy ambience that is impossible to forget. There is a wealth of naturalistic imagery and symbolism, flowers everywhere, and – the worm in the bud! – beetles and creatures to negate the innocent aesthetic; statuary and rustling trees abound, with a sentinel foreboding. Everywhere Miss Giddens is being watched. If there is a false note, and this is the most minor of quibbles it might be found in an over-used echo effect during a dream sequence that almost borders on the hysterical, but this last a matter of seconds and is a negligible incident. There are far too many counterpoints to enjoy, although the most shocking moments, one in the middle and one at the end, neither of which are supernatural, could not in any way be said to be ‘enjoyable’.

On its original release, Pauline Kael called The Innocents “the best ghost movie I’ve ever seen”, and I find it impossible now, having watched and re-watched it seven or eight times, to disagree with that statement. It is never less than brilliant, and outside of the cinema it’s the best film I’ve seen all year. It goes into my all-time Top Ten, and I just can’t see it being surpassed.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Beth permalink
    February 9, 2008 5:50 pm

    I’ve thought so much about this film since viewing it. Credit for the recommendation is entirely yours and I’m grateful as it’s as fantastic a horror experience as one would want. The lush setting, the flowers, the beetle crawling on the statue, even the sweat beaded faces at the end, all combine to give the black and white a color of its own and I was spellbound. But, in thinking about it since, what I most enjoyed is the ever so slight shift from the novella’s focus on Miss Givens’ interiors to the cinematic expression of the children and the world around them as truly innocent. Innocence in my understanding doesn’t necessarily equate with virtue and gets mangled that way sometimes in language. It’s more a sense that a person or place possesses a natural grace, free from artificiality, that can’t be hidden. So, when the rain and mud abound, bugs crawl, and even haints appear, what’s innocent operates far beyond any attempts to control it. A great film and a delightful find.

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