The Innocents Review
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.
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.
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.
The Innocents is released in the UK by the BFI. The disc is beautifully packaged in a slipcased fold-out digipack. Both the pack and the enclosed booklet of essays, credits and biographies are illustrated throughout with striking promotional stills from the film. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Having noted the uncommon yet vital qualities of Freddie Francis’ rich monochrome ‘Scope cinematography on The Innocents, the good news is that it has been superbly transferred to DVD anamorphically as the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image is clear, with crisp tones and has little in the way of significant marks. The amount of detail visible is superb, each of the finely lit scenes showing a wealth of information even in the deep shadows, although there is possibly a slight softness to the whites. One or two minor scratches affect a few frames only, and there is occasionally some brightness flicker and light flaring down the right-hand side of the frame, but for the majority of the film, this transfer looks stunning.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is delivered at a fairly low volume that dampens any residual noise on the original soundtrack. It’s nonetheless reasonably strong, with voices and sound affects clear and dynamic, only showing tis limitations in the latter half, when all the high-pitched screams become a little shrill and distorted.
English subtitles for the hearing-impaired are provided in a clear white font. They are available for the feature, for the commentary and for all other extra features.
Commentary by Professor Christopher Frayling
It’s informative on all aspects of the production, the cast, the crew, anecdotes about the writing and filming, analysis of the original story and how it is developed for the screen. While it is always interesting and thought-provoking, breaking it down scene by scene is perhaps excessive, since Frayling also provides is a quite in-depth documentary introduction into the film, which is just as complete but much more concise. For anyone who is interested in the minutiae however, you could hardly ask for more from a commentary track.
Filmed Introduction by Professor Christopher Frayling (24:57)
Less of an introduction (I certainly wouldn’t recommend watching it before watching the film) than a full documentary analysis of The Innocents, Frayling – on location at the Sheffield Park location of Bly House - covers the background of Jack Clayton, the whole nature of his approach to James’ ghost story, the extent of Truman Capote’s input to the script, the casting (with interview snippets from the main cast), the filming and its place in the horror tradition.
The Bespoke Overcoat (35:36)
A 1955 short film by Jack Clayton, this is a fine, if somewhat free adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat. A lovely bonus, the quality of the print here is also as good as the main feature.
Included here are Production Stills (18), which include stills from deleted scenes, Costume Designs (22) and Publicity (7), all annotated.
Original US Trailer (2:46)
The US trailer is chillingly effective, obviously emphasising the supernatural elements of the story.
Oscar Wilde described The Turn Of The Screw as “a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale”, and the same can certainly be said of Jack Clayton’s marvellous film adaptation of this timeless ghost story. The Innocents delivers all the chills of the stories supernatural elements, enriching it with subtle insinuation and suggestion while retaining its air of mystery. A beautifully staged and impeccably photographed film, BFI’s UK DVD release presents the film every bit as well as you could possibly hope for, with an informative commentary and a strong set of supplemental features.