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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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.
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.