Tuesday, October 04, 2011

a second look at ... the innocents

Major plot points are discussed and revealed in my musings on a gorgeously-filmed movie that should be on everyone's "to-see" or "re-watch" list.

I have read Henry James's The Turn of the Screw a few times and am always impressed, but also a little disappointed, by its ambiguity. Is it a ghost story, a psychological piece, or a little bit of both? James brilliantly never completely answers the reader's questions, leaving his mystery open to interpretation.

When I first saw the 1961 movie The Innocents (directed by Jack Clayton and written by William Archibald and Truman Capote), based on James's short story, I thought I was watching a horror movie/ghost story. But after watching it again recently I came down more on the side of psychological drama. Deborah Kerr gives a brilliant performance of a woman gradually coming apart. She plays Miss Giddens, a young woman very ignorant of the ways of the world, who takes her first job as governess to two orphaned children (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin). Their uncle, seemingly disinterested in their lives, has had them raised by others since infancy at his country estate, Bly. Miss Giddens's predecessor, a Miss Jessel, recently died, spurring the uncle to quickly hire the inexperienced Miss Giddens to take her place.

Does Miss Giddens really see Quint over Miles's shoulder?

The daughter of a minister, Miss Giddens has led a sheltered life, and is unprepared to be in charge of a large household and two precocious children. Little by little she learns that life at Bly has been more than a little strange. The children are decidedly odd, and sometimes act too mature for their years.
Miles, reassuring Miss Giddens about a noise outside the window, "It was only the wind, my dear."
They are constantly whispering to each other and seem to have a secret life that they won't share with their governess. Is she reading too much into childish behavior, or have the children been corrupted somehow? After gossiping with the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) about the previous governess and her relationship with the uncle's valet, the also recently-deceased Mr. Quint (Peter Wyngarde), Miss Giddens starts to piece together what she believes had been occurring at Bly. She is scandalized by the brazen affair carried on by her predecessors in full view she surmises, of the children — but she also becomes obsessed by it, and keeps pressing the housekeeper for more and more details.

Flora watches Miss Giddens toss and turn in her sleep

Her sleep is disturbed at night, with dreams haunted by Quint, whose portrait she found in the attic. Repressed and sexually frustrated, she transfers her feelings to the children, cloaking her emotions in her concern for their welfare. But her fears for the children — that they have been exposed to something too mature for them, which has tainted them — she then does herself. She hovers over them and becomes far too intimate with them, especially Miles.

In some misbegotten pseudo-psychological and quasi-religious fervor she insists that the children confront the "ghosts" of their past and admit what they have seen. But does she want to get them to admit that they have seen the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel, or that they witnessed the pair perform lewd acts (or performed such acts themselves)? She drives Flora to hysterics — it's unclear whether the child will ever recover. She hounds Miles until he admits why he was recently expelled from school — for hurting animals and scaring his classmates with foul language and inappropriate behavior — until he collapses, apparently dead.

And then the kiss. More than just a kiss goodbye, she kisses him tenderly on the mouth. A lover's kiss. And so creepy. And I'm back to thinking that The Innocents is a horror story, and the scariest character is the governess.
Miss Giddens: But above anything else, I love the children.

With its beautiful photography and '60's-style close-ups and camera angles by cinematographer Freddie Francis, The Innocents is a visual treat. For people who like their gothic horror scary but not graphic, it is the perfectly restrained, yet spooky story. Like Miss Giddens, The Innocents is smooth on the surface, but full of shadows and dark feelings. You will need to watch closely and decide for yourself if what you are seeing is real, or just the fevered imaginings of a dangerous child-woman.
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