This review of Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) was originally published in the second issue of So Film magazine.
“Perhaps it is the silence that first impresses us. Everything at Bly is so profoundly quiet. The twitter of birds at dawn, the far-away cries of children, faint footsteps in the distance stir it but leave it unbroken. It accumulates; it wears us down; it makes us strangely apprehensive of noise… It is unspeakable… Can it be that we are afraid? But it is not a man with red hair and a white face whom we fear. We are afraid of something, unnamed, of something, perhaps in ourselves… Note how masterly the telling is, how each sentence is stretched, each image filled, how the inner world gains from the robustness of the outer, how beauty and obscenity twined together worm their way to the depths…”
It was of Henry James’ exquisite study in psychological ambiguity, The Turn of the Screw that Virginia Woolf wrote the above literary appreciation in 1921, some forty years before Jack Clayton’s re-titled screen adaptation of the same novella was first presented to an indifferent public. That she could just as easily have been speaking ofThe Innocents, not just one of the great British ghost stories but one of the great British films, is testament to Clayton’s skill and determination in mining a cinematic equivalent to the teasingly subjective, untrustworthy textures of James’ prose.
The new title had come from William Archibald, upon whose stage production the first pass of The Innocents’ screenplay was based. Sticking closely to James’ narrative, both play and film tell of a buttoned-up vicar’s daughter accepting the role of governess to two young children at a country estate. As she slowly learns of the house’s recent history – involving the deaths of the children’s previous governess and the valet with whom she was in love – she becomes convinced that the deceased couple have returned to continue their torrid affair through the possession of her young wards.
Clayton was particularly taken by a 1934 reading of James’ text by the literary critic Edmund Wilson, attaching a copy of the article to his shooting script. Titled ‘The Ambiguity of Henry James’, Wilson’s was an explicitly Freudian take on the story (“…the male apparition first appears on a tower and the female apparition on a lake”), pursuing the notion that its supernatural elements existed solely in the governess’ mind. Yet despite its lustrous monochrome lensing, The Innocents remains far less black and white than Wilson’s dated reductions.
So densely layered is Clayton’s film, that it leaves itself open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that the suggestion of abuse feels so explicit today. For a film more than fifty years old, it’s lost little of its power to shock, not least of all in the development of the relationship between Deborah Kerr’s governess and Miles, the boy under her care. But even issues of cruelty and mistreatment remain charged with as much ambiguity as the title itself. Are we to suppose that it refers just to the children, or is Kerr’s Miss Giddens as much of an innocent – a victim of a repressed, orthodox upbringing, acting out the psychosexual projections of her corseted psyche?
Clayton was anxious to avoid answering any such questions, as was Truman Capote, brought in to effectively re-write Archibald’s original adaptation of his play. Christopher Frayling offers a comprehensive breakdown of the script’s development and Capote’s input in his excellent monograph for the BFI Classics series, suffice to say that the writer’s contribution was paramount, bringing a Southern Gothic sensibility to the rotting centre of crumbling Victoriana.
Between them, Clayton and Capote conjure myriad motifs to encapsulate a psychological landscape as indicative of the era in which the film was made as that in which it was set - beautiful surfaces with poisonous cores - nature itself serving a dual function in Bly House: a perceived Eden of flora and fauna upon closer inspection a battleground of death and decay. Butterflies trapped by spiders. Beetles scurrying from the mouths of statues. Dead pigeons stuffed under pillows. The roses that make their first appearance pinned to the lapel of Michael Redgrave’s uncle, signifying the governess’ passion in bloom, disintegrate at her touch on arrival at Bly, only to return later at their most symbolically ripe, as a petal falls to the cover of her discarded Bible before one of the film’s most unsettling set-pieces. Passion and repression, fear and desire.
Tackling James’ unreliable narration, much of The Innocents psychological unease lies in its mastery of subjective focus. That the film can be read on so many levels is testament to its slippery use of point of view. For the first half of the film, the appearance of the ghosts is pre-figured by a reaction shot of Kerr – are they really there, or are we just seeing what she thinks she sees? As the screws turn tighter in the film’s latter half, physical manifestations become more concrete – a tear (a mistake, said Capote!) on a chalkboard – blurring the real and the unreal further still. Yet nothing is made explicit, no other character or dialogue confirming any position beyond the governess’ own, Christian self-certitude. She knows what she believes, and is intent on bringing the children salvation, whether they want it or not.
Such unsettling ambiguities extend not only to the expressionistic, disembodied sound design, but also to Freddie Francis’ breathtaking CinemaScope lensing. Edges of the frame are smudged and blurred during key night-time sequences, creating candle-lit tunnels of light to trick the eye. Day-time interiors possess twin focus depth of field, sharp enough to make Gregg Toland blush. Yet the film’s most strikingly terrifying reveal occurs in broad daylight, as Deborah Kerr glances across the lake, the mournful reprise of a young girl’s song seeming to summon what James described as, “A woman in black, pale and dreadful…”
It’s the sure footing of the filmmaking on every level that ensures the removal of that of the audience throughout The Innocents, never knowing where one stands in relation to either the governess or the children, even after the shocking denouement. It’s these dark, pathological ambiguities that elevate it above the few, serious big-screen ghost stories it can count as its peers. The best ghost story ever committed to film? I guess that depends on whether you believe in its ghosts.