Light and shadow flicker across the screen. Sobs are heard as a pair of praying hands, clasping and unclasping, appear. The sobbing continues.
A woman’s suffering face appears above the tortured hands. Birds twitter…her distraught voice whispers…
All I want to do is save the children not destroy them. More than anything I love children. More than anything they need affection, love, someone who will belong to them and to whom they will belong.
And then, as a man’s voice asks, “Do you have an imagination?,” the screen suddenly focuses on a well-appointed office, an elegant gentleman and the woman whose face we have already seen…who now sits in a chair and speaks animatedly with this man as he continues to ask questions and explain the situation he offers.
|Director Jack Clayton|
These first moments of Jack Clayton’s masterful 1961 film, The Innocents, set the stage for a chilling and absorbing tale of bewitchment. Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, an anxious, fragile-seeming young woman who begins her first assignment as a governess for two orphaned children on a remote estate. Michael Redgrave briefly portrays the gentleman, Miss Giddens’ employer, whose questions and revelations prime and subtly spook her before she sets foot in the stately home where events will unfold.
The story intensifies when Miss Giddens arrives at Bly, a magnificent manor that far exceeds her expectations in its grandeur and beauty. She is “very excited, indeed” to be there and her two “angelic” and precocious charges easily charm her. An earthy housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), serves to ground the excitable governess whose journey proceeds from enchantment to confusion, to torment and disintegration.
American novelist Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw, the basis for this film, in 1898 while living in England in a large rambling mansion. James has recorded that the story was suggested to him by an anecdote he heard from the Archbishop of Canterbury. This scrap of a tale concerned young children haunted by the malevolent ghosts of a pair of servants who tried, again and again, to lure them to their deaths.
|Novelist Henry James|
The James novella depicts a young governess on her first assignment, the care of two children living in a grand mansion on a sprawling estate. The plot deepens when the young woman, daughter of a vicar, begins to suspect the presence of the evil spirits of two deceased servants.
It was several years after James’ book was published before critics began to wrangle in earnest over the interpretation of the story. By the 1920s several had proposed that The Turn of the Screw was less a ghost story and more the tale of inexperienced and high-strung governess who succumbed to hallucinations and madness. A 1934 essay by prominent critic Edmund Wilson dramatically advanced this view. Henry James himself was equivocal about his intentions, and statements he made on the subject have been cited to support both apparitionist and non-apparitionist views.
Fascination with The Turn of the Screw failed to wane over the years and it has been adapted from the page to other mediums including opera, the stage and TV as well as film. In February 1950, Peter Cookson’s production of William Archibald’s stage adaption of the James novella debuted on Broadway as The Innocents; Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight (Network) starred as the governess.
Eleven years later the play was adapted to film by British director, Jack Clayton (Room at the Top). Though William Archibald was involved, it was Truman Capote who was primarily responsible for the polished screenplay. Capote endeavored to maintain the story’s ambiguity as he felt Henry James had originally conceived it by artfully dodging the central question: Are the ghosts real or are they the fantasies of a governess gone mad?
Taking the modern view, it’s not difficult to interpret The Innocents as an intricately staged reflection on an unstable woman’s descent into madness: the film closely follows the increasingly erratic behavior and visible deterioration of the omnipresent governess; no one but the governess actually “sees” the ghosts she claims are present; by the film’s end, even the sensible and supportive housekeeper is at odds with the hysterical young woman…and there are many visual clues that the governess may be projecting her own imaginings onto her surroundings. It is no stretch these days to believe that a deranged governess would be capable of terrifying a frightened child to death.
But, viewed from another perspective, the tale can also be read as the story of an inexperienced but well-meaning young woman confronted with the supernatural in the form of malicious spirits. Her fervid determination to save the children from possession could explain her unorthodox behavior. And that is what most people believed when The Turn of the Screw was first published.
Enigmatic and haunting, The Innocents leaves the audience to its own conclusions. A luminous turn by Deborah Kerr (in her own favorite film performance), Freddie Francis’ atmospheric cinematography, the script of Archibald and Capote and Georges Auric’s original music all mesh under Jack Clayton’s sure hand to create the acknowledged masterpiece among the many adaptations of The Turn of the Screw.
Waitin' on a Sunny Day is hosting a Deborah Kerr Blogathon in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the actress's birth...Click here for more on participating blogs.
The Innocents airs today (1:45pm Eastern/10:45am Pacific) on Turner Classic Movies as part of its morning/afternoon spotlight on the films of Deborah Kerr. Here's the full schedule (all times Eastern/Pacific):
6:00am/3:00am Count Your Blessings (1959), co-starring Rossano Brazzi
8:00am/5:00am If Winter Comes (1947), co-starring Walter Pidgeon
10:00am/7:00am Black Narcissus (1947), a masterwork from Powell & Pressburger
11:45am/8:45am The End of the Affair (1955), co-starring Van Johnson
1:45pm/10:45am The Innocents (1961), reviewed here...with Michael Redgrave
3:30pm/12:30pm The Journey (1959), co-starring Yul Brynner
5:45pm/2:45pm The Sundowners (1960), co-starring Robert Mitchum