The Innocents Review

The following film review is taken from Noel Megahey's excellent coverage of the BFI's 2006 R2UK DVD, which completely echoes my own thoughts on The Innocents.

As one of the greatest and most unsettling little ghost stories ever written - its subtle suggestion and dark gothic period setting lending itself marvellously to all manner of interpretations - you can pretty much count on a new adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw turning up with dependable regularity every couple of years. In addition to the numerous television adaptations, its influence can be seen in Alejandro Almenábar’s The Others and Raoul Ruiz’s Comédie de L’Innocence, and it has even been turned into a notable opera by Benjamin Britten. The enduring qualities and mysteries of the source material make for some interesting adaptations, but few of them can match the richly suggestive and deeply unsettling tone of Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents.

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Miss Giddens has been engaged as a governess for two orphans, Miles and Flora, by a distant uncle of theirs. Far too busy with his own affairs in London and abroad to trouble himself with their education and instruction, he leaves everything in the hands of Miss Giddens, giving her strict instructions not to bother him. The governess finds the country residence at Bly wonderful and the children adorable, but things soon take a sinister turn for the worse. Miles has been expelled from school for bad behaviour, and Miss Giddens starts hearing worrying stories of the corrupting influence of the former valet Peter Quint on both the children and the previous governess, Miss Jessel. Although both Quint and Miss Jessel are now dead, their influence and presence exerts a strong hold over the household. Concerned about the evil that seems to persist in the house through ghostly apparitions and the declining behaviour of the children, but unable to contact her employer, the governess is driven to distraction.

What makes all these strange supernatural goings-on so unsettling, and has ensured that the story has endured since it was first published in 1898, is that we are never sure of their source. Everything is shrouded in suggestion and mystery, from the behaviour of the children’s distant uncle and the unknown circumstances of the death of their parents, to the nature of Quint’s corrupting influence on the children and the mysterious deaths of several former employees at Bly. All of this mystery, added to her concern for the well-being of the children has a particularly profound effect on the governess. The traditional view of the story, which I feel is still the most persuasive, is the Freudian interpretation by Edmund Wilson, where the whole affair is seen as stemming from the hysteria of a sexually repressed Victorian governess. He points to her witnessing of the apparition of Quint on a tower where Miles is playing, and the ghostly presence of Miss Jessel by a lake where the young Flora is playing, noting the sexual symbolism in such imagery. The governess, perhaps through her own repressed feelings for the children’s guardian (jealous of his choice of a young and pretty former governess) and the sexually suggestive stories she has heard from the housekeeper, is tormented by her own desires and projects them onto the children, imagining a corruption of their innocence. As she says at one point, “Sometimes one can’t help imagining things”. Through the absence of their own parents, Miles and Flora have been forced to grow up in a household under the less than desirable influence of servants from lower classes, whose coarse behaviour she can only imagine and perhaps longs to indulge in herself.

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What is so marvellous about Jack Clayton’s film, insightfully scripted by Truman Capote from William Archibald’s Broadway adaptation, with additional input from John Mortimer, is that it allows that the viewer to view the apparitions as being entirely imaginary or for them to be physical manifestations of the supernatural. Whether ghosts or reality, the actions of Quint and Miss Jessel do however have real horrific consequences. Were the children perhaps sexually abused by the servants who looked after them? Have Miles and Flora indeed been irremediably corrupted? Or is it Miss Giddens’ over-protectiveness and unstable mindset that is the cause of the horrors that subsequently take place? All these options are left open, as they are indeed in the story, but most successfully here through the performances, the production design and the mise en scène. Deborah Kerr gives a typically nuanced performance, the viewer never sure whether she her unsettlement comes from within or by what she witnesses. The children too, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin, are played neutrally as children - not as some demonic manifestation of corrupted innocence - so their complicity in what has occurred, if indeed anything has even occurred, is never certain. Clayton heightens the tension also in very real ways, though shadows and light, the scratching of pencil on slate, eerie songs chanted to tunes on a music box, and through rotting white roses, broken statues of cherubs and nymphs, the insects and creatures that inhabit the undergrowth of the beautiful gardens of Bly House, suggesting an underbelly of dark secrets and corruption seething beneath the surface of genteel English propriety.

Such a treatment inevitably brings to mind the work of David Lynch, for whom the film must have been a major influence. Photographed by Freddie Francis, the visual styling of The Innocents is an uncommon one, using wide depths of field with dual focal points and flowing dissolves, yet considering how successfully the black-and-white CinemaScope image is employed here you would wonder why it hasn’t been used more often. Lynch certainly recognised its power and employed a similar look and feel on his Victorian horror of The Elephant Man, using Francis as cinematographer. Here, the monochrome tones are perfect for the conveying the dark shadows of evil and the corruption of white innocence, with a particularly ghostly luminous sheen that heightens the eerie quality achieved by the script, the performances of the cast and Clayton’s unsettling directorial touches. The tremendous richness of the production and its treatment of one of the most highly effective and unsettling ghost stories ever written combine here to startling effect, creating in The Innocents an enduring classic.

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Presentation

The BFI have declared that "The Innocents was transferred in High Definition and supplied for this release by Twentieth Century Fox. The picture was further restored by the BFI using HD-DVNR and MTI systems, removing dirt, scratches, warps, torn frames or replacing torn or missing frames and improving stability issues" and I have to say the results are there for all to see, as this 1080p AVC transfer looks remarkably clean and stable given the film's age. Minor nicks and scratches can be found frequently throughout the film but they barely register and only rarely will you find a more intrusive form of noise in the shape of an odd vertical line at a few points, or a stray coiled thread dropping briefly into view at the bottom of the frame.

DVNR may have been used to touch up the damage but the grain and more importantly the detail has been maintained, with the deep-focus cinematography having a really pleasing level of clarity and fine detail. Depth of field is so important to The Innocents and this HD transfer has that in spades, although this goes hand-in-hand with the obscuration of the fringes of the image. Freddie Francis used various filters and even paint to blur the periphery and force attention to the centre of the frame, so many shots can show a great dichotomy in detail within the same frame, which is usually either purely intentional or a by-product of the shooting techniques. The grain structure is heavy, with chunky grain particles dancing wildly throughout the image in many of the film's exterior sequences, but it settles down into a reassuring texture elsewhere.

Another by-product of the deep-focus cinematography is the use of lots of light, which creates a rather high-contrast feel that seems accurately conveyed here. Blacks are deep and whites are bright but nothing feels clipped, shadow detail is strong and the image remains naturalistic. There may be one or two places where there seems to be a fading of the print or brightness flickering but it's hard to ascertain which parts are down to candlelight flicker or not.

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Despite the grainy image the AVC encode performs very well, the average bitrate is not massively high at 24.02Mbps, but it's more than up to the task and I haven't spotted any noise in my three viewings of this Blu-ray now. I wouldn't say it's a transfer that will be used by many to show off the HD format, but I think those who appreciate subtly detailed, film-like transfers will really respond to this effort from the BFI - although the true test will be how those lucky enough to have seen the film play in 35mm react. Sadly I am not one of those people.

Like the transfer, the English LPCM 2.0 Mono audio has been impressively cleaned up. Obviously there are hallmarks of the film's age, with the low end feeling a little hollow and the high end quite shrill at times - plus some modest tearing and screeching - but mostly you'll be hard pressed to find much wrong with the quality of the sound. Hiss is very well contained and isn't really an issue, the audio is dynamic and the dialogue clear and audible throughout, bass isn't too shabby either! Optional English HDH subtitles are provided with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.

Extras

A BFI Blu-ray wouldn't be complete without one of their mini-booklets, this time being a particularly strong 28page effort that gathers together an essay on The Innocents by Jeremy Dyson, an article written for Sight & Sound in 1961 by Penelope Huston after she visited the set of The Innocents during filming at Shepperton Studios, a biography of Jack Clayton by Neil Sinyard, liner notes and credits for the Clayton shorts: The Bespoke Overcoat and Naples is a Battlefield, and some short notes on Freddie Francis. Finishing off is an article on the Motley Theatre Design Group who designed the film's costumes, written by Catherine Surowiec.

On the disc itself is a small but impressive collection of commentary/featurettes and shorts, all of which come with English HDH subtitles (including the commentary), and some of which will be familiar to owners of the BFI's 2006 DVD. They are:

Commentary by Professor Christopher Frayling
An excellent and thorough analysis from the noted film expert and biographer Christopher Frayling, who insightfully covers just about all the themes and motifs as he compares the film to Henry James' original novel and the 1950 play by William Archibald that Clayton took the film's title from. Frayling also provides lots of information on the film's production and the cast and crew throughout. This is a definite must listen to any fans of the film who aren't familiar with the feature from the DVD.

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Filmed Introduction (26min:03sec, 1080p, English LPCM 1.0)
Frayling returns to narrate a video introduction that is thorough enough to qualify as a retrospective Making Of in itself, talking us through how the final script fell into place and production started, right up to the marketing of the finished product. It also features brief interview footage of Deborah Kerr and Pamela Franklin. Frayling may cover some of the same ground as his commentary, but there's enough extra information here to make this an excellent companion piece and must watch in itself.

Note: Although this feature is presented in 1080p AVC it is in fact a very blocky Standard Def upconvert.

Original US Trailer (02m:49s, 1080p, English LPCM 1.0 Mono)
Entertainingly over the top and schlocky, I'd imagine this trailer was quite effective in selling the supernatural theme back in 1961. Sadly it's another 1080p upconvert - this time from an interlaced SD source, so you may spot some combing.

Designed by Motley (14m:25s, 1080p, English LPCM 2.0)
A featurette on the film's costume designs created by the Motley Theatre Design Group and narrated by Catherine Surowiec. It starts with a brief introduction to the three British designers who made up Motley and also looks at some of the costume design on the various other adaptations of The Turn of the Screw before settling down into an analysis of the costumes for each character in Clayton's film, including a gallery of the original designs by Motley designer Sophia Harris.

The Bespoke Overcoat (37m:30s, 1080p, English LPCM 2.0)
Gogol's The Overcoat was adapted into a one-act play by Wolf Mankowitz in 1953 and was later adapted to film with Mankowitz as screenwriter by Jack Clayton in 1955, which eventually won both a British and an American Academy Award for Best Short. A poor tailor is visited by the ghost of his recently deceased friend Fender, who had commissioned the tailor to repair his threadbare overcoat. Fender's flashback reveals his final days working as a clerk in a clothing factory for a meagre salary that didn't afford him the money to replace his coat, but his friend the tailor offers to make a new coat at cost for ten pounds. However before the tailor can finish the job Fender is fired by his callous young boss and is forced to cancel the new coat, and dies from the cold later that night.

The Bespoke Overcoat (1955)
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The Bespoke Overcoat is a touching human drama that has enough parallels to The Innocents to justify its inclusion here, notably in the use of subjective flashback, dissolves, and supernatural theme. It is presented in 1080p with an excellent transfer and LPCM 2.0 Mono track that far exceed its status as just an extra feature.

Naples is a Battlefield (13m:33s, 1080p, English LPCM 2.0)
Jack Clayton's first and only film as a solo director throughout his time serving in the RAF Film Production Unit during World War 2. Naples is a Battlefield was shot in 1943 after the townsfolk of Naples and the Italian Resistance forced the occupying German forces out of the city just before the Allied Forces came to liberate it. This short documentary highlights the devastation brought to the city by Allied bombing campaigns and the German forces seeking to wreck the city before they fled, with Clayton following the efforts of Allied servicemen to rebuild the shattered shell of Naples. Like with The Bespoke Overcoat, the BFI have given Naples is a Battlefield the loving 1080p treatment and it looks and sounds great for its age and low budget.

Naples is a Battlefield (1944)
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Overall

A wonderful, multilayered supernatural thriller that has inspired so many of today's ghostly horrors, The Innocents fully deserves its classic status alongside many of the great horrors that came out in the late 50s/early 60s, like Night of the Demon, Psycho and The Haunting. The BFI have managed to clean the print up whilst maintaining the detail to deliver a first rate presentation of the film alongside a small but riveting selection of extra features.

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Film
9 out of 10
Video
9 out of 10
Audio
9 out of 10
Extras
9 out of 10
Overall

9

out of 10

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