If a gold standard for gothic cinema had to be chosen, then Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS would surely be on the shortlist, probably at the very top. No other film can touch it in terms of subtle emotional complexity and haunting resonance. On the surface a deceptively straightforward tale of spooky visitations, it’s only with repeated viewings that its true mastery reveals itself. Coming back to the film after a prolonged gap, the thing that really takes you aback is how creepy the story is – and not just in a supernatural way. Dark forces are very much at work in the real world too, blurring the lines between reality and imagination.
In a beautifully delicate performance, Deborah Kerr stars as the mousy Miss Giddens, a governess past her youthful prime who is suddenly thrust in to employment at a remote country pile, there to look after two children at the request of their well-to-do uncle (a cameoing Michael Redgrave) who can’t stand kids. It quickly becomes apparent to her that all is not well with her charges – Flora (Pamela Franklin) seems to have some form of second sight, as she seemingly knows her brother Miles (Martin Stephens) is returning home from school earlier than unexpected, while Miles himself speaks and behaves in a manner far beyond his years. It leads Miss Giddens on a journey to discover what happened to the previous governess, Miss Jessel, the valet, Quint (Peter Wyngarde), and the circumstances surrounding their deaths.
Questions hang in the air like the sound of creaking doors in the echoing dark
The sordid nature of the relationship between Miss Jessel and Quint is the crux of the plot, as both Miss Giddens and the audience try to work out whether the strange happenings at the house are supernatural or merely psychological. Have the children been horribly corrupted by the couple? Or are they possessed in a more literal way? Are the ghostly figures Miss Giddens glimpses real or products of her fragile mind?
The ambiguities of the story, based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and adapted with flair by Truman Capote from a stage version, tumble back and forth in Clayton’s hands, leaving the audience to make their own mind up. The lack of any definitive resolution one way or the other chills the blood, as does Freddie Francis’s exquisitely atmospheric cinematography, which drips with eerie gloom even in the daylight scenes.
The ambiguity about what we are (or are not) seeing also extends to the film’s title. Who exactly is innocent anyway? Possibly everyone; possibly no-one. The children might have been once, as might Miss Giddens. But the uncomfortable nature of Miles’ behaviour around the governess, and her own equally uncomfortable responses (a kiss that lasts just slightly too long), raise significant doubts. Questions hang in the air like the sound of creaking doors in the echoing dark.
Only the comforting presence of the friendly Mrs Grose, the housekeeper, played by Megs Jenkins, helps calm the atmosphere in between bouts of nighttime scares. Her absence between scenes serves to magnify the terror. She emerges as possibly the only trustworthy character in the story, and even that’s not certain. The shifting sands of perspective and sanity leave us stranded, not knowing whether the ghosts are real or not. It’s a grand and persuasive testament to the power of suggestion.