Written by William Archibald, Truman Capote and John Mortimer; adapted from the novella The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James
Directed by Jack Clayton
A 20th Century Fox Picture
Starring: Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens); Martin Stephens (Miles); Pamela Franklin (Flora); Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Groce); Clytie Jessop (Miss Jessel); Peter Wyngarde (Peter Quint) and Michael Redgrave (The Uncle)
There’s a certain pleasure in sitting down to watch The Innocents with someone who has never seen it before, particularly to note the roll of the uninitiated’s eyes as the picture begins. “Oh,” they seem to be thinking, “a black and white horror movie with Deborah Kerr.” Memories of An Affair to Remember and The King And I seem to play in their scowls as they wonder how on earth Deborah Kerr could possibly be in anything actually frightening. Invariably, this attitude changes over the next 100 minutes. Based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the seminal ghost story of English literature, the film stars Kerr as Miss Giddens (her name an invention of the screenwriters as James’ governess’s name was never revealed in the text), a woman charged with the care and education of two children at a secluded estate in Bly. Though she is untested, her stated love for children convinces a selfish businessman (Sir Michael Redgrave) to put her in absolute charge of the house and of his niece and nephew. Talk of another governess who died under mysterious circumstances is quickly brushed aside, and Miss Giddens finds herself charmed by Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), her new charges. Everything seems to be going well, but who is that man that Miss Giddens sees standing on the roof? And why can no one else see him?
The Innocents, like its source novel, asks us to question reality as Miss Giddens perceives it: is the house at Bly haunted, or is the imaginative governess drifting into madness? Careful reading of the novel leads me to believe that the haunting did indeed take place, but the film gives us no clues whatsoever: the most horrifying thing about The Innocents is that its final tragedy may have been the product of Miss Giddens’ imagination and paranoia.
Deborah Kerr was an interesting choice for the role of the governess. Miss Giddens may be embarking on her first position, but Ms. Kerr was thirty-nine years old when she accepted the role. Although beautiful even into her seventies, Kerr is hardly a silly young girl who is unreasonably expected to take charge of a country estate. The casting shouldn’t work, yet Kerr’s performance is exquisite to the point that one could hardly imagine anyone else in the role. A woman who looks as sensible as Ms. Kerr should not be susceptible to the charms of the children’s uncle (a bounder at first glance, just because he recognizes and lists his character flaws to Miss Giddens is no reason why he should be excused from them), let alone the perhaps-imaginary specters that she encounters at Bly. But this is the film’s ace-in-the-hole; if someone as grounded as Deborah Kerr can believe in ghosts, then maybe…
To give poor Miss Giddens her due, the children that she’s been given to care for are a bit weird to say the least. Miles and Flora share a bond more intense than ordinary siblings. One odd event that cannot be explained away is Flora’s knowledge that Miles is coming home before the letter detailing his expulsion from school arrives. Miles often seems to be something more than just a boy (although that’s all he wants to be, he says in a key scene). His manner and command of language gives the impression of a man trapped inside a little boy’s body, which is one of the things that frightens Miss Giddens, and she comes to believe that Miles’s mature nature may in fact be the result of the ghost of Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) possessing the boy. Late in the film, Miles kisses Miss Giddens on the lips, and her horrified expression (one of the best moments in Ms. Kerr’s career) speaks volumes. Who was it who actually kissed her and, more importantly, how did she feel about it?
Little by little, Miss Giddens learns more about life at Bly before she arrived. Tales of an abusive relationship between Quint and the former governess Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) that included “rooms used in daytime as if it were night” (possibly with the children watching) and Miss Giddens is horrified by it all, but there is a sense that she is fascinated by it as well. This vicar’s daughter who never knew privacy in her crowded house (and has probably never tasted the nectar of forbidden love) finds Quint’s rouge-like features in a photograph handsome, and her imagination is mostly filled with thoughts of the illicit lovers cooing over each other. One marvelously frightening scene features Kerr trying to return to her room while, all around her, she can hear echoes of the lovers in the deepest throes of their passion. The whispers are punctuated by Miss Jessel’s hysterical cries of “The children are watching” and as the echoes becomes more distorted and chase Miss Giddens through the house, it all comes to a crashing end as she slams her bedroom door behind her and Mrs. Groce’s voice announces “But Quint is dead!” And this is just what a naïve, pious woman fears the worst: that the sins of the flesh may continue past death, that there is no judgment for Quint and Miss Jessel to face and that their cavorting may continue not only in her ringing ears but in the bodies of her innocents, the children that she is now wholly responsible for. But as she runs from those voices, breathlessly moaning their passion, are they truly there? Or has Miss Giddens’ sheltered life awakened a ghost of her own, one that wants to taste the passion (as illicit and masochistic as it may have been) that Miss Jessel so gladly supped from?
Even if the ghosts of Bly house are genuine, there is a possibility that their target is Miss Giddens and not the children. The ghosts appear only to her, and it is through them that she comes to believe that the children are possessed (apparently to continue Quint’s and Miss Jessel’s relationship). Her certainty that this has happened is, however, off-putting. At first, she believes that it is best for her to go back to London to put the entire matter into the hands of their uncaring Uncle and force him to listen to her (one can only imagine that meeting had it taken place, the expression on the Uncle’s face as Miss Giddens calmly explained to her employer that his former groom and governess were cavorting about the house in their spiritual undergarments with the children giggling behind them). But then Miss Giddens sees the spirit of Miss Jessel weeping in the classroom. By the time Mrs. Groce calls on her, Miss Giddens has changed her mind; from that brief visitation, she has conjured up an entire motive for the ghosts. She states “the children are possessed” as a statement of fact, and poor simple, illiterate Mrs. Groce has no choice but to go along with it (until Flora’s breakdown).
During the final third of the film, Miss Giddens behaves more and more erratically, accusing the children of lying and plotting against her. When she finds Flora at the lake, she tries to force Flora to see the figure of Miss Jessel sitting on the other side and this cracks the poor girl’s psyche. Flora goes into a hysterical screaming rage, which lasts well into the night. In the aftermath of it all, Mrs. Groce’s explanation that Flora confronted a “bad memory” (the trauma of her loss of Miss Jessel), seems far more sensible than Miss Giddens belief that Miss Jessel is somehow being exorcised from the young girl. At this point, Miss Giddens seems more manic than ever; she accuses Mrs. Groce of turning on her when the woman says she saw no ghost at the lake. Putting her foot down, she orders Mrs. Groce to leave her alone with Miles, assuring her that everything will be alright. But everything does not go as planned.
After the explosion of Flora’s emotions when forced to face her trauma, the audience sits back and waits to see what might transpire during Miss Giddens’ encounter with Miles. Miles is alternately sweet (remarking on the crackling of the fire and that all he ever wants to be is a boy, which is all he’ll ever be) and creepy (calling Miss Giddens “a damned hussy,” words he obviously learned from his time spent with Quint), but it is Miss Giddens that we watch closely: she studies Miles, possibly twists every word that he says to fit her own interpretation of events, and we wonder if there can possibly be another, more sensible explanation for what has been going on other than the one Miss Giddens has dreamed up. Despite the truth of Quint’s bad influence on Miles (he didn’t learn those words and that tone in Bible study), he reacts with justifiable panic when Miss Giddens suggests that Quint’s ghost is with them even now. “You’re insane,” he screams, before falling over in what Miss Giddens assumes to be a faint, but after a closer look, she realizes it is something far more permanent. Miles’s heart has stopped and Miss Giddens kisses him on the mouth (recalling his kiss to her earlier in the film) and the film comes full circle: the opening shot of her crying and praying are now revealed to be her reaction to her (in effect) killing Miles. Miss Giddens is left alone in the dark garden of Bly, wondering what she has done, and clinging only to her core belief that “more than anything, I love children.” The film’s final tragedy leaves us guessing at what the cause of it all was. Was the ghost of Quint feeding Miles the words that he uses to hurt Miss Giddens, or is he simply repeating the profanity that he no doubt heard Quint use in life? Has Miss Giddens failed to protect Miles from the ghosts, has she unknowingly done their bidding, or is she insane? The film fades to black before it has a chance to answer.
The Innocents is not a tough film to love (with its beautiful photography, exquisite performances and frightening set pieces) but it is a tough film to gear yourself up to watch yet another time. The film is heartbreaking in many respects: Miss Giddens’ emotional torturing of the children is hard to watch on the first viewing, let alone repeated viewings, and one can only wonder if Miss Giddens’ final kiss to Miles wasn’t in some way meant for the rogue that she thought might have resided in that poor little body and that she, though she may be damned for it, secretly wanted. Ultimately we’re left with few answers, only the aftermath of Miss Giddens’ decisions and the questions of what really happened and what the future holds in store for our poor lonely heroine. When all is said and done, were there any actual innocents in the film? And if there were, was that really a good thing?