Impressions of … The Innocents (Jack Clayton)

this is a classic, must be the fifth or sixth time I’ve seen this film and I don’t watch many films more than twice (there’s always something, new or old, I’ve yet to see), it is difficult to say anything about a film as immaculate as this one


I was struck on this viewing by Deborah Kerr’s performance, she is very well cast, despiter her age, pretty and kind, but uptight, very uptight, this helps, the intensity of the role, swinging from fierce moral rectitude to an awkward, desperate vulnerability, she delivers this with absolute conviction – how many times does the poor lass have to widen her eyes? – I have to say, she is supported by generous work from Meg Jenkins as the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, I also think the camera (director) does not abandon her, as it does so many unfortunate actresses in other less intelligent films, the smooth dolly shots, while not being  remind of Max Ophuls, indeed, dare I say it, but there’s a hint of early Orson Welles, though I’m not sure I could explain that intuition

there is an interesting use of deep focus, you might say ‘split’ focus, where one character is foregrounded, their face occupying nearly half the screen, while another character is also present and in focus, but wide, it creates an obscene intimacy with the foregrounded character, the children receive this treatment several times at Miss Giddens’ (Deborah Kerr’s) expense, as if she were excluded from the secret, but on at least one other occasion we get close to Miss Giddens in this way, but here it is to experience her fright more closely: in one memorable sequence, she naively consents to a game of hide and seek with the children, which leaves her to wander the vast mansion alone, there are few shocks as she searches for the children, but it is when she takes her turn at hiding (there is something sad about the way the awkwardness with which she enters into the game), she chooses an accessible location, behind a voluminous curtain in a drawing-room, however, over her shoulder, through the full length windows, the night lurks, a statue is visible, and then something else, which is when we get this shot:

The Innocents

(NB her eyes have widened before she sees the man – ghost – approaching.)

I’ve never found this film especially frightening, this sequence may well be the only one that makes me jump – it’s a classic example of ‘concern’: we know something the character does not and which may harm them, so we worry for them, here it is generated in the moment, but delivered by the building tension of the sequence; the film doesn’t thrill or menace like horror movies are supposed to; and yet it doesn’t matter, not at all

in fact, this is probably one of the reasons the film is so good

it has atmosphere (the gothic mansion (Sheffield Park), staircases, candles, crinoline, children singing), but more than atmosphere, it has mystery – as soon as she arrives, Miss Giddens, the governess, senses something is amiss – she hears someone calling the little girl’s name, but no one can be identified, and so it continues, giving rise to intrigue and a compelling dramatic question (or two): are the ghosts of the valet and previous governess stalking the house? the governess seizes this question and will not let go, it quickly becomes another more dramatic question: are they seeking to possess the children? Miss Giddens seems convinced …

and there we have it, only our protagonist sees the ghosts (the leering Peter Quint, and the lamening Miss Jessop – whose damp straight hair suggests a blonde version of the Sadako character in ‘Ringu’), no one else, or no one else admits to it – “I know what I saw” Mrs Grose declares, no one else, but us, which inclines us towards the protagonist, include to forgive her erratic behavour, so the plot should lead to the point where the existence of the ghosts is confirmed, admitted, brought into the light, Miss Giddens announces this as her goal for the children, arguing like a proto-psychotherapist that this will cure them …

but what is their condition?

the insinuations of child abuse are abundant, the dominant amoral male, a subservient enabling female, a report of the children having witness the lovers in flagrante, inappropriate ‘precocious’ behaviour on the part of young Miles, the housekeeper in denial, the parent figure (the uncle) absolutely neglectful, and then Miss Giddens herself, confused and perplexed, because she is attracted to the pre-pubsescent boy, she kisses him, and in her mission contrives to be alone in the house with him, and yet we still cannot discount the existence of the ghosts, nor her sincerity

so more than intrigue, or re-doubling the intrigue, we have a very rich and disturbing and ambiguous subtext

this is what makes the film such a fine adaptation and such a classic



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