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THE INNOCENTS, 1961
Movie Review

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THE INNOCENTS MOVIE POSTER
THE INNOCENTS, 1961
Movie Reviews

Directed by Jack Clayton
Starring: Deborah Kerr, Peter Wyngarde, Meg Jenkins
Review by Virginia De Witt



SYNOPSIS:

In 19th century England, a governess, Miss Giddens, is hired to care for two orphaned children by their guardian, a wealthy gentleman; the previous governess, Miss Jessel, having died. Soon after arriving at the country estate where the children live, Miss Giddens begins to have strange experiences. Alone, she becomes convinced the children are being used by the dead governess and another deceased servant for corrupt purposes. Increasingly, anxious and strained over what to do, Miss Giddens attempts to solve the mystery of what has happened to the innocents in her charge.

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REVIEW:

An adaptation of the Henry James novella, “The Turn of the Screw”, this film, co-written by Truman Capote and William Archibald, prefigures a number of other films that feature supernatural stories involving children - “The Omen” (1976), “The Changeling” (1979) and more recently, “The Others” (2001) and the Spanish language “The Orphanage” (2007). “The Innocents”, though, surpasses them all in its psychological subtlety and ambiguity. It is tempting when watching it to try to categorize the film simply, as either a straightforward ghost story, or conversely, to view the supernatural angle as merely a feint, and that the real story is that of a lonely, neurotic woman who has lost her bearings regarding events occurring around her. The beauty of James’ story, and this intelligent adaptation of it, is the fine line it walks between the two possibilities, and how the writers and director, Jack Clayton, refuse to let the audience off the hook too easily.

Deborah Kerr as Miss Giddens understands this delicate balance well and her performance reflects the same. While it is clear Miss Giddens is slowly coming undone under the pressure of assuming sole responsibility for two young children on an isolated estate, Kerr never overplays her hand. Miss Giddens refuses to entirely give way to hysteria. Her struggle with her anxiety and, what may or may not be, justifiable paranoia, never overtake her, and instead give the performance a tension that carries the viewer right to the end. The way Kerr plays her, Miss Giddens is a caring, intelligent woman who is determined to do the right thing. But at a crucial moment, it becomes clear, it is precisely these qualities which may lead her badly astray.

The rest of the small cast is equal to Kerr. The children, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens) are exactly right as the precocious, preternaturally poised charges who confront Miss Giddens. They seem to know too much, to be far too mature for their ages, but the film always remains vague about what it is they do know or what they may or may not have done. Again, the film keeps a great deal in the shadows, visually and narratively. Miles is expelled from school for some action that we are led to believe is terrible, but we, in the audience, are left to wonder what it is he did and how bad it really was.

The creeping sense of menace and strangeness that Miss Giddens must endure is partially achieved through Freddie Francis’ brilliant black and white cinematography. One would never imagine that the English countryside could look so beautiful and yet so beautifully eerie at the same time. Francis consistently evokes the haunting quality of 19th century photographs, where the shadows are deep and figures sometimes slightly blurred. This evocative quality is particularly effective in the depiction of Miss Jessel as she appears to Miss Giddens.

Visually nature itself evokes disturbing echoes of death and corruption. We see the young girl, Flora watching a spider eating a butterfly. A roach is shown crawling out of a cherub’s mouth in the garden and young Miles keeps a pigeon with its neck broken hidden under his pillow. All of these images speak of the natural being broken and twisted, becoming the unnatural. The internal world of the mansion is also shot evocatively. There is a wonderfully spooky scene where Miss Giddens roams the upstairs halls of the house, being led in every direction by unearthly strange sounds in the middle of the night. Her hair loose around her shoulders, her white nightgown billowing out, she seems a ghost herself floating down hallways with a only a candle to illumine the shadowed corners.

The sinister aura surrounding the estate and its inhabitants is further enhanced by the use of sound. The musical score is minimal, consisting almost entirely of a ballad sung a cappella by a child. The song returns throughout the film at certain critical junctures. Even more disturbing, however, is the use of natural sounds. The weird animal sounds in the night compound the sense that the surrounding natural world is threatening, as does the sound of the wind whistling across the yard and through open windows. As well, silence is often used to great effect

“All I want to do is save the children ...” This is Miss Giddens’ plaintive plea to the sympathetic housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins). It is precisely the question of who really needs saving from whom and why, that makes “The Innocents” so much more than just another ghost story.

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