In Victorian England, a woman named Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) applies to become the governess to a pair of young orphaned siblings, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin). Their uncle and guardian (Michael Redgrave) wants to ensure that they’re well provided for, but beyond that, he has little interest in getting involved in their lives. He’s more than happy to put Miss Giddens in charge, provided that she leaves him alone. Although she’s somewhat taken aback when he tells her that the children’s last governess died, she accepts the job and sets out for his large, isolated house in the country.
Upon arriving, she meets Flora, housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins) and the very small staff of servants, and Miles rejoins the household shortly thereafter, having been expelled from school for being “an injury to the others.” Miss Giddens convinces herself that there must have been some mistake, but it’s much more difficult for her to ignore the increasingly strange occurrences all around her — in particular, the appearances of a mysterious man (Peter Wyngarde) and woman (Clytie Jessop) whom no one else seems to see. She comes to believe that they’re the ghosts of Peter Quint, the uncle’s valet, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess, who had a sordid, violent relationship and both died unsavory deaths. Because Miles and Flora adored Quint and Miss Jessel, respectively, Miss Giddens decides that the ghosts must be using the children as a means of reuniting themselves, and she becomes determined to rescue her young charges.
The Innocents, released in 1961 and directed by Jack Clayton, is based on Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. I read the book for a college class a number of years ago, but I remembered nothing about it, which made the film all the more enjoyable. From the start — even discounting Miss Giddens’s ominous opening lines about saving the children and not destroying them — there are hints that something is a bit off about this situation, what with the uncle’s desire to be left alone and the mention of Miss Jessel’s death. While there may be perfectly innocuous explanations for these things, they give both Miss Giddens and the viewer a sense of unease, and that feeling grows at the house. Odd little incidents, minor in and of themselves — Flora correctly predicting that Miles will be coming home from school soon, for example — gradually accumulate, so that when the strange man and woman appear at last, a supernatural explanation seems as reasonable as any other.
But does it follow that the explanation must be supernatural? That uncertainty, that ambiguity, makes the film far more frightening than it would be if everything were made clear. Is Miss Giddens on to something? Is she letting her imagination run away with her? Is she insane? Even if she is correct, it’s impossible to be certain whether the children are being exploited by the ghosts or whether they’re willing collaborators, and Miles and Flora are offbeat enough that it could go either way. Other questions linger as well: what prompted Miles’s school to expel him, whether the uncle has unacknowledged motives for staying away, why Miss Giddens is such a restless sleeper even before the ghost issue arises… All in all, it’s both an atmospheric, chilling movie for a first-time viewer and, I suspect, one that can be watched again and again, forever open to new interpretations.
This post is part of the 2016 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.