My mother grew up in a family ruled by the iron hand of her grandfather, a strict disciplinarian who thought dining out, nightlife, and cinema were a waste of time. Not to mention immoral. As a result, while he was alive, about the only films the family went to watch were The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and Kismet.
Mummy once told me that the first film she happened to watch after the old gentleman (and his controlling ways) had passed on was The Innocents. And that she liked it. When I discovered that it starred Deborah Kerr—a favourite of mine—I was curious. I watched this film shortly after I began blogging, but decided I’d postpone a review (and a rewatch) for after I’d read the story on which this film was based: Henry James’s famous The Turn of the Screw.
The credits roll to a close-up of Deborah Kerr’s face and hands—the latter folded in prayer, the former looking shaken—while a child’s high voice sings an eerie song in the background. When that’s over, the scene shifts to a gentleman’s office in London. Here is a job interview in progress: the applicant is a Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), applying for her very first position—as governess to little Flora, the orphaned niece of the man who’s interviewing her. Flora’s older brother, Miles, who is at school, will also be Miss Giddens’s charge when he’s home from school for the holidays.
The children’s uncle (Michael Redgrave) is candid about the situation. He is a bachelor, and he has neither the time nor the inclination to spend his life personally looking after Flora and Miles. They live on his estate, Bly, where they are comfortably looked after by a household of servants; what they need, however, is care and attention. Will Miss Giddens give them that? Miss Giddens, by now thoroughly charmed, agrees eagerly.
At which point, the gentleman springs a surprise: Miss Giddens will be solely in charge at Bly. She is not to contact him for anything. Not to complain, not to question, not to ask for advice. This causes some nervousness: even though she agrees, it’s obvious that the wheels in Miss Giddens’s mind are already turning: why is this gentleman distancing himself so forcefully from his nephew and niece? Why this restriction?
But the drive down to Bly dispels her fears. It’s lovely, classic English countryside: rolling meadows, avenues of leafy trees, a tranquil lake beside the mansion. Miss Giddens is so giddy with delight that she insists on alighting from the carriage and walking the rest of the way all by herself, exploring as she goes.
As she walks through the parkland, she hears someone—a feminine voice—calling from afar. Then, as she emerges from the trees and comes to the lake, she finds there little Flora (Pamela Franklin), who greets her cheerfully. Flora, of course, has already been informed that her new governess is coming, and she is all bright, friendly and welcoming (she even introduces Miss Giddens to her pet tortoise, Rupert). Miss Giddens is instantly and overwhelmingly charmed.
…so much so that, later in the day, she admits to the kindly housekeeper Mrs Grose (Megs Jenkins) that though she’d been apprehensive on her way to Bly, now she cannot help but love the place. And the child. What a darling Flora is! Mrs Grose agrees, wholeheartedly. There is a mild mystery, though: when Miss Giddens asks Mrs Grose if she had been calling out to Flora, Mrs Grose denies it (Flora herself says she didn’t hear anybody call). Mrs Grose is complacent: it was probably one of the maids. Miss Giddens doesn’t let it bother her any more.
Oddly, that evening, as they’re getting ready for bed (Flora and Miss Giddens share a room, so that Miss Giddens is with the child even at night), Flora remarks that Miles will be home soon. Miss Giddens corrects her: no, Miles won’t be home soon; he won’t be home until the school holidays begin.
To Miss Giddens’s surprise, the very next morning, they receive a letter from her employer, the uncle. Not really a letter, even: just a note in an envelope, in which he’s enclosed another letter. The letter’s from Miles’s school; Uncle hasn’t read it, but his note instructs Miss Giddens to do so.
The letter is distressing. The school has expelled Miles. The headmaster, who’s written, does not explain exactly why, and Miss Giddens is very disturbed. What can be the matter?
Mrs Grose, however, is a comfort. She brushes it off, saying there must be some misunderstanding; Miles is a very good boy. Teachers will invariably have misunderstandings with children. Miss Giddens, though it’s obvious she’s nervous, also agrees. Yes, there must be some misunderstanding, after all.
… and when Miles (Martin Stephens) arrives, Miss Giddens is reassured. Flora’s elder brother is as delightful, as charming and innocent a child as Flora herself.
The days pass in blissful joy. Miss Giddens is enchanted by her two young charges. They are almost too perfect to be true: cheerful, friendly, the very picture of innocence. The time they spend after their lessons is in other equally innocuous pastimes: Miles with the pigeons he so adores, or walking hand in hand with his sister, both of them whispering to each other. Or playing games with Miss Giddens.
And then, out of the blue, one day Miss Giddens—cutting roses in the garden—happens to look up at the tower jutting above the mansion. There’s a man there. With the sun shining behind him and dazzling her, Miss Giddens can’t see his face. When she comes further, out of the sunlight, he’s gone. She’s puzzled. Who could it be, since the only man in the household is the gardener, and Miss Giddens is certain it wasn’t him…?
Miss Giddens rushes up to the tower, and when she bursts out at the top, finds only Miles there, cooing and crooning to his pigeons. He staunchly denies having seen anyone there. He’s himself been there for the past half hour or so.
Miss Giddens is confused, close to hysterical: is she seeing things? Is Miles lying (but no; he can’t be, can he? Such a good child). Mrs Grose, when applied to, suggests that Miss Giddens probably had the sun in her eyes. Basically, it’s all her imagination.
Soon after, one day Miss Giddens is playing hide and seek with Miles and Flora when, trying to seek them out, she goes up to the attic. There, amidst the clutter and dust, she finds two interesting things. One is a little music box, which, when wound up, plays a familiar little tune (the one that Flora’s singing or humming all the time to herself, even though—when questioned—she says she doesn’t remember who taught it to her).
The other is a small oval portrait of a dark-haired man. Miss Giddens doesn’t, of course, know who this is.
Later, when it’s Miss Giddens’s turn to hide, she rushes excitedly downstairs and hides behind the curtains at the tall windows. Pulling her feet in under the curtain, adjusting her position so she can’t be seen, Miss Giddens looks over her shoulder, out through the glass…
… and straight into the face of the man (Peter Wyngarde) whose portrait she has seen just a little while back.
And, just as suddenly as he’s appeared, he fades away into the darkness. Miss Giddens rushes out from the window to look around, but he’s nowhere to be seen. When Mrs Grose comes along, Miss Giddens turns to her and blurts it all out. For once, Mrs Grose shows something akin to fear. When she hears Miss Giddens’s description of the man, Mrs Grose identifies him: Peter Quint, ‘the master’s valet’. A handsome man, and one who exercised power over everyone who came his way. A brutal man, but one whom Miles adored. Miles was always in Quint’s company, emulating him, learning from him.
The scary thing? Peter Quint has been dead more than a year. He slipped, while in a drunken daze, one night on the ice, and was found dead.
As if this wasn’t enough, soon after, Miss Giddens sees a mysterious woman, clad in black and with long dark hair hanging loose, standing by the lake and watching. Watching, and—to Miss Giddens’s horror—obviously noticed by Flora, who however pretends she doesn’t see anything.
When Miss Giddens goes rushing to Mrs Grose, it’s to discover a sordid tale: of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, of whom Flora had been very fond, and who had become Peter Quint’s lover. She learns of how, after Quint died, Miss Jessel too had wasted away—and finally died.
What is going on? Are the children really just the innocents they appear to be? Are Quint’s and Miss Jessel’s ghosts really just wandering about, restless, or is there something deeper and more sinister behind their appearances? Or—since she seems to be the only one who senses Quint and Miss Jessel—is Miss Giddens losing her mind?
What I liked about this film (and how it compares to the original):
The atmosphere and the general tone of The Innocents. This is not one of those films where there’s some unspeakable horror leaping out at people, or blood and gore and other repulsive stuff all over the place. The terror here is much more subtle. And it’s belied by the beauty. The beauty of Bly, with its abundant roses, its sunshine (director Jack Clayton actually insisted on so much extra lighting in the outdoor scenes that Deborah Kerr ended up having to wear sun glasses when not giving a shot). The beauty, too, of the children: their gentle smiles, their sweetness, their willingness to be dear friends to the new governess.
Then, the gradual peeling away of that sweetness and beauty to reveal something unsettling. Not outright horrific at first, but something vaguely not-quite-right. In the way the children’s smiles turn just a trifle too sweet, or the way they whisper as they run along. Or the secrets that Mrs Grose slowly starts to reveal about Quint and Miss Jessel and their influence on Miles and Flora… the contrast between the sunniness of the first half and the stirring horror and mysterious darkness of the second half makes this a memorable film.
A major part of the credit goes, too, to the actors. Deborah Kerr (in what she regarded as her best performance) is superb as Miss Giddens: so committed, so eager, so enthusiastic and wanting to take charge—and then, as the horror begins to surround her, slowly unravelling. (Or, is she—the perennial question innumerable critics and readers of The Turn of the Screw have raised—actually imagining it all?)
The children are equally, eerily good: their smiles, those knowing looks, the sweetness that could be something completely different, are all very well done.
I thought this one of those rare cinematic adaptations that improve on the original. While I didn’t mind The Turn of the Screw, I thought the language too wordy—sentences go on and on and on. The film, because it cuts out all those verbose (and often confusing) descriptions of people and their ideas, is crisper, cleaner. What’s more, while Henry James leaves a lot of things unspecified (what exactly was so awful about Quint and Miss Jessel’s relationship? How did it affect the children? What is so wrong about the children?), those questions are answered in the film. It does not still lay out everything in black and white, but it cuts down on much of the vagueness of James’s book.
Lastly, the motifs. Clayton uses several motifs to build the horror of Bly: the tune that plays on the music box and which Flora so loves; the pigeons; Rupert the tortoise; and the stone statues in the gardens. Each of these is innocuous, associated with loveliness and innocence (well, perhaps not the statues)—and each ends up being used in a way that changes its association in the eyes of Miss Giddens (and, by extension, the audience).
And the kiss. Or the kisses, two of them. Chilling.
Highly recommended. (As you can see, there’s no ‘What I didn’t like’ section in this review).