June 25, 2007
The Innocents (1961)
Among the many works of Gothic fiction that came up during the revival of the genre in the 1880s, Henry James' classic ghost story, "The Turn of the Screw", is certainly one of the most intriguing and fascinating of all. The reasons for this are many, but one of the most important has been the ambiguous way James uses his ghosts to explore the psychological issues of his characters. This ambiguity has led to countless debates about the nature of the plot, as the way James wrote the story has allowed many different interpretations about it over the years. Obviously, this has resulted in the fact that most of the many adaptations to other media that have been done about the novel presents a different way to see the story. Fortunately, the 1961 movie, "The Innocents", is somewhat an exception, as this masterpiece of 60s Gothic horror manages to keep the seductive ambiguity of the novel.
In "The Innocents", Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens, a young and unexperienced governess hired by a wealthy man (Michael Redgrave) to work at his country home and take care of his nice and nephew, as he is unable (and has no interest in) to take care of the two orphaned children. After her arrival, she meets Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), the housekeeper, and Flora (Pamela Franklin), the young child now under her care. Everything seems to be working perfectly until she receives the notice that the other kid, Miles (Martin Stephens), has been expelled from his school. After Miles returns from school, Miss Giddens will begin to experience strange events around the house, hearing and seeing eerie apparitions that make her suspect that the house is haunted. The strange behavior of the two children will only increase her suspicion that someone or something wants to take control of the innocents.
Following Henry James' short story in a very faithful way, the screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote manages to capture the exact same atmosphere of ambiguity and paranoia that impregnates the pages of James' classic novella. In fact, one could say that the writers take the story's ambiguity one step beyond as they joyfully play with every element the story has to offer: supernatural horror, psychological drama, and even a subtle yet strong nod to the voluptuous sensuality of Victorian sexual repression. The plot twists and turns as the story unfolds, toying with every possible explanation for the strange events that are taking place, but never giving too many clues, wisely keeping all the mystery and suspense till the very last moment. Finally, the superb development of the characters is another element that makes this movie one of the most powerful tales of horror ever put on film.
Two years after directing the internationally acclaimed "Room at the Top", director Jack Clayton once again shows off his talents to transform literary works into classy films that remain faithful to the essence of their sources. Focusing entirely on Miss Giddens and the two children, Clayton stays in line with the ambiguous tone of the script, creating a claustrophobic character-driven horror based almost entirely on suggestion, leaving to the audience's imagination the nature of the haunting and the source of the those unspeakable horrors that seem to take place in the house. And of course, the star of Clayton's masterpiece is without a doubt the impressive work done by cinematographer Freddie Francis, who using black-and-white photography creates an ominous atmosphere of dread that's frightening in all its beauty.
While Francis's cinematography is definitely a highlight of the film, "The Innocents" wouldn't be the same without the remarkable performances done by its cast. Deborah Kerr's acting as Miss Giddens is a powerful dramatic Tour De Force as she literally becomes her character, transmitting that subtle mix of naiveté and repressed sensuality that fits perfectly her character, and one can truly sympathize with her as she descends into a spiral of fear and paranoia. As the innocents of the title, Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are perfect in their performances, and one wonders how they could achieve the maturity to play their roles. Stephens is specially a joy to watch, as he can go from playful child to sinister figure in a frighteningly natural way. Finally, Megs Jenkins adds her talents as Mrs. Grose, making an excellent performance in a role that easily could had become a caricature.
As Robert Wise's "The Haunting" would do a couple of years later, "The Innocents" is a movie that bases its impact in the power of its ominous dark atmosphere and in the ambiguity of its script, and it is probably this last element what may also be its main flaw. Well, not exactly a flaw, but certainly something that won't be everyone's cup of tea. What I mean is that since the movie takes on many different interpretations to what is going on with the children, modern audiences may feel that the movie doesn't give enough answers to the questions it poses. However, that's precisely where the magic of "The Innocents" is, as like Henry James' novella does, this allows a wide range of possible interpretations to its ambiguous plot. Wheter this is a flaw or a virtue depends entirely on the viewer, and personally I think that this is one of the film's strongest points.
The fact that some consider the film too vague while others think of it as too biased towards a single explanation, is simply a testament of how intriguing and fascinating the movie still is more than 40 years after its release. Creepy and atmospheric, "The Innocents" is also a powerful display of the best talents the British film industry had to offer in the 60s. With its excellent cinematography and wonderful acting, "The Innocents" is simply a masterpiece of Gothic horror that easily ranks among the best horror movies ever made. Fans of ghost stories, this is a definitive "must-see".