Friday, November 5, 2010

The Innocents (1961) - Jack Clayton

The story begins ordinarily enough. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is hired by a negligent uncle to act as governess for his orphaned nephew and niece, Miles and Flora, who live in an isolated county estate. Giddens is inexperienced but enthusiastic. The uncle tells her that in accepting the position she assumes full responsibility for their upbringing--he does not want contacted. It's a strange arrangement, and a wiser person might decline, but Giddens does not.

Both children initially are precocious and sweet, if a little odd; they speak well beyond their years. The job takes an ominous turn when Miles is expelled from school for bringing "injury to others." Soon, the children begin to act peculiarly, and strange apparitions of supposedly dead people and whispered voices have Giddens wondering if the place is haunted.

She learns more from Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper. The previous governess committed suicide after her abusive lover Quint, the valet, was found dead. Miles had worshiped the man.  

Miss Giddens slowly becomes unhinged.
Based on Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw, Clayton fashioned one of the best ghost stories ever filmed. More psychologically disturbing than frightening, it is a finely crafted film that leaves the viewer confused as to what is actually happening. Is the mansion haunted, or is it all in Giddens' head? Are the children some times possessed by the spirits of the family's previous caretakers, or are they just having devilish fun with the woman? Kerr called it her finest performance, and that's saying something. 

Miss Giddens is a strange woman in her own right, perhaps unstable. In the first scene she seems overly infatuated with the uncle, and we learn that she is the daughter of a parson, so likely has led a repressed life. We also learn that she has an imagination. Maybe she is susceptible to the power of suggestion. In any case, she seems too attached to the children for just having met them, especially the boy Miles. In one mildly disturbing scene the boy gives her a hug and an extended kiss on the lips. She recoils, feeling that someone other than Miles was kissing her. In perhaps the scariest scene Giddens plays hide and seek with the children. As she stands behind a curtain, a man suddenly appears outside the window staring at her. By her description, he is Quint. 

There is another scene that quickens your pulse, an extended journey by Giddens through the mansion in the dark, with just candles to light the way. Giddens has heard something: disturbing whispers and laughter. Director Clayton leaves most of scene without background music. You hear the occasional creaky floorboard, an un-oiled hinge, and just Kerr's footsteps. Kerr was an actress who used her eyes to great effect. Here and elsewhere in the film she registers real terror.  

Giddens eventually comes to believe that the dead couple may be trying to possess the children to continue their relationship. At times the children laugh almost maniacally and can't be relied upon to tell the truth; sometimes saying they make things up. It seems all too much for Miss Giddens, who is desperately trying to protect the children.     

Freddie Francis was cinematographer and his sharp black and white camerawork is often eerily lit and full of oppressive shadows. The set decoration is also terrific, the big Victorian mansion has a Gothic appearance. 

Miles with Quint's face looking hauntingly over his shoulder.
Clayton was fresh off a big hit with the 1959 film Room at the Top. This film is 180 degrees different. He adds little touches to enhance the atmosphere of creepiness: weird bird calls, a garden statue with a beetle in its mouth (perhaps influencing Silence of the Lambs), and an appropriately spooky score. His pacing is highly effective, with the tension building until the unsettling climax, which stills leaves the viewer asking questions. Truman Capote and William Archibald wrote the screenplay.

What Makes The Innocents Special:

The uncertainty of the film is wonderful. This is an adult horror story that makes you think.
The performances of the two children, Martin Stephens as Miles and Pamela Franklin as Flora are excellent, considerably better than what child actors typically manage. It was Franklin's first role. She would go on to play a key role in the 1969's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
A ghost in the weeds?

Major Awards:

Director Clayton won Best Director from the National Board of Review, and was nominated by the Directors Guild of America and the Cannes Film Festival. The film was nominated for a BAFTA best film.  Kerr, whose performance is outstanding lost out in that year's Oscar nominations, but she did receive one for another 1961 film, The Sundowners.

The British magazine The Guardian recently named it the 11th best horror film of all time.  

Similar films of interest:
  • The Shining (1980) by Stanley Kubrick
  • The Haunting (1963) by Robert Wise
  • The Uninvited (1944) by Lewis Allen
Other films by Jack Clayton:
  • Room at the Top (1959) by Jack Clayton


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