Our scene opens at the height of Queen Victoria's reign in England in the mid-19th century. A gentleman, in the guise of 'The Uncle' (Michael Redgrave) has been entrusted, much to his chagrin, with the care and upbringing of a young niece, Flora and a nephew, Miles (Pamela Franklin and Martin Stephens). While there is a certain, if somewhat limited degree of love for the children, the callings of his carefree and flighty bachelor lifestyle take first prize, and hence, someone is needed to watch over the welfare of these two 'innocents.' Enter Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a young, inexperienced governess, the daughter of a country parson, seeking her first gainful employment. If, as The Uncle suggests, she can entertain the complete turnover of the children to herself, and never seek to bother him concerning their care, the position is hers on a silver platter. Miss Giddens readily accepts, with nary a question or comment about the children, their orphaned circumstances, or just what she might be getting herself into.
She arrives at her employer's country estate, Bly, and to what she perceives as a Garden of Eden on Earth. The house and the surrounding countryside immediately strike her sense of fancy, and when she meets young Flora and Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), the housekeeper, she is quite taken with what she perceives will be an easy and forthright job. Little does she realize the 'ghosts' that are harboured within the confines of the collective imaginations of all concerned, and how their presence will set the stage for calamity and disaster as the tale unfolds.
Young Miles is sent down from school, and asked not to return. He enters the serene and lonely world of Bly, with a demeanour that harkens to that of a worldly gentleman beyond his young years. While Miss Giddens is at first taken with him, small hints of something being not quite right, run in tandem with Flora's sense of other worldliness and seeming all too sweet and coy. The children had previously been taught by another young governess, Miss Jessel, who, Giddens will learn, drowned herself, when her employer's valet, Quint, dies quite unexpectedly. What seems to be a sad story, eventually grows into one that is foul and debased, as the two were lovers who felt no shame at showing their love, even to the children, who, it is suggested, may have been privy to the actual acts themselves.
The cool collectiveness of the scenario is shattered with the entrance of the 'ghosts' of Miss Jessel and Quint, and how they are perceived and treated by Giddens. It would be wrong to contribute this film to a long list of ghost stories per se, for these ghosts as we perceive them, are far removed from the 'boo' variety that so many of us are aware of. Rather, perceptions that slip over the edge of the abyss and into the realm of the psychological variety deepen with each frame that the film presents.
Giddens is our guide into the unknown and it is through her eyes that we begin to see this as more than just another ghost story. Rather it is the door into Victorian society and the social caste system that was readily used. Levels were to be maintained and one was never to stray from their station in life. Is Giddens a reliable storyteller, or are we living through the frustrations of her own life and how she intends to project herself onto the rest of the world around her? Would we tend to call this tale a ghost story or would we see it for what it truly is -- one of a repressed and irrational person who has created this entire story to make up for her own sense of personal and professional failure in her life?
Sex, as we are well aware, was a taboo subject in the Victorian era. Are we witnessing the sexual meltdown of the spinster governess, Miss Giddens, or, are we a party to a real ghost story? The Innocents turns the screw on the viewer and thrusts the choice into our minds. We see what we want to see and perceive it as thus.
Performances by Deborah Kerr and Martin Stephens are chilling. Her nervous, wanting to please governess and Stephens' Stepford/Village of The Damned child lob off each other as they draw us ever closer to a masterful denouement. They have equally created a sense of evil that allows us to see the horror of the situation from within the story.
Jack Clayton, the director, has captured the atmosphere and darkness in The Innocents, which is based on the novella, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James. The use of an all black screen at the beginning and the end of the film makes you wonder just what precisely is going to happen, and the showing of hands in prayer remains a puzzle until the very end.
The screenplay by Truman Capote and William Archibald encompasses the spirit of James's book, and it is held tightly in check, with an understanding of what is required and what is not.
Cinematography by Freddie Francis, in glorious black and white envelopes the tale by issuing forth the lights and shadows that are such a base requirement for any story claiming to have even a minute hint of terror about it. The blazing light of day, the play of light off water, the ebony black of night, the supposition of ghosts upon the living; all masterful and elegant touches that echo suppositions of eerie and otherworldly things and events.
The Innocents is chock full of horror. The supposed pureness of the children and the requisite combination of evil in the appearance of the apparitions and Miss Giddens behaviour, fathoms a nightmare quality that stays with the viewer long after the movie has ended. Giddens pursuit of truth as she wants to believe it, must wade through a quagmire of lies that will continue to mislead her until she has no further ground to trod.
This film is to be commended for its non-use of a lot of silly special effects that would have ruined the desired response that it sought to convey. Just try to forget the gossamer representation of Miss Jessel on the lake or the appearance of Quint on the tower top! It joins the club of psychological thrillers that need only the power of the mind to relay the subtleties of the story without a caravan of pyrotechnics to mar the proceedings. The Sixth Sense, The Uninvited and The Haunting (the Robert Wise version and NOT Jan de Bont mess!) are part of a special club indeed, and The Innocents joins them.
This film was overlooked when it was first released. It's such a gem as to beg to be seen for what it is -- an effective tale of not necessarily what you see or don't see, but what you almost see. . .