BRITISH CULT CLASSICS - The Innocents / Review

Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961) remains as a stunning achievement in translating Henry James' novella The Turn Of The Screw to the screen. It's deliberate steer away from the Eastman colour horror films of the Hammer studios mark it out as that rarest of films, a genuinely chilling psychological ghost story. It was so atypical of the genre that, at the time, it didn't find an audience despite its critical success and it was only twenty or so years later that it was recognised as the classic that it is today.

The film, as Christopher Fraying notes in his superb filmed introduction on this disc, is bookended with a sequence that suggests an open ended story rather like a fever dream. A woman's hands clasping, almost praying and a voice saying that all she wanted was to help the children and not hurt them opens and closes the film. Sandwiched between this device is a brooding psychodrama, slowly growing in power, atmosphere and anxiety as a new governess, Miss Giddens (a utterly remarkable performance from Deborah Kerr - probably one of her best along with the role of Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus) takes up her post at Bly House, a Gothic mansion set in a sprawling estate and garden. 

She is to tutor the orphaned Miles and Flora and on arrival all seems well and she is enchanted by both children. Gradually, however, she uncovers the history of the previous tutor, Miss Jessel, and her disturbing sado-masochistic relationship with valet Peter Quint. Both died in mysterious circumstances and Miss Giddens begins to believe that both of them have somehow tainted the two children and have returned from the grave to possess them. The climax of the film has her confronting the children in an attempt to break the spell that Miss Jessel and Quint have over them and this has tragic consequences.

Clayton's genius here lies in the ambiguity he creates about Miss Giddens' psychological state. Is she so sexually repressed that all of the visions of the ghosts and her concerns about the children are merely the projections of her strained and damaged psyche? Has her fevered imagination, caught up in the decaying Gothic atmosphere of the house and gardens, simply overtaken her senses? Or has she really seen these sick phantoms and did the children need rescuing from their taint? It's left for the viewer to decide and helping you draw your conclusions is rich, visual tapestry of a film, shot in gorgeous black and white by the legendary Freddie Francis who piles on the atmosphere with beautiful lighting and a wonderful sense of claustrophobia in his use of filters to create what Fraying describes as a tunnel of light through which you see people, places and events.

Director Clayton also taps into the Gothic sensibilities of the screenplay by Truman Capote, imbuing it with a dreamlike quality in his use of dissolves, the layering up images for Giddens' bedtime nightmares, and the symbolic images of flowers, statuary and water. He and Capote between them understand the psychological power of the uncanny and the return of the repressed in films of the fantastic and use the mansion and the gardens as a projection of Gidden's disintegrating self as she navigates through this psychopathological space, where the burgeoning reproductive power and eventual decay of nature is a metaphor for her own sexual frustrations. Both convey its adverse effects on the children and the housekeeper Mrs. Grose who must deal with her repression, that primal fear of the dark and the dread of the unknown in an architecture of the real and unreal that seems to have no boundary. 

It still has the power to disturb because as well as pinpointing our anxieties and fears about the spirit world it also examines the corrupting effects of desire and sexuality, culminating in the powerful suggestions of incest and paedophilia with the kiss between Giddens and Miles. The film employs the widescreen format beautifully, carefully placing characters in landscapes and interiors where deep focus allows close ups on faces in the foreground whilst other characters inhabit the background. The realisation of Miss Giddens' phantoms is beautifully and economically achieved, creating subtle but dark and brooding menace with a combination of filtered visuals and edgy sound effects.

Kerr is amazing and pitches this absolutely perfectly, superbly transmitting Giddens' overwrought imagination and blackest of repressions. It is a finely tuned performance that evokes pity for the woman as well as distaste. She is supported by three equally good performances, from Martin Stephens as Miles and Pamela Franklin as Flora and from the ever reliable Megs Jenkins as housekeeper Mrs Grose. Clayton gets the two child actors to not only behave as children would in that society and in that environment but also he again places ambiguity in their depiction. Again, you ask yourself what is behind the cherubic smiles and shining eyes and the answer is a hint of darkness, of secrets and the corrupting influence of Quint and Jessel. Brilliantly, Jenkins too is outwardly the genial, loveable old housekeeper but as the anxiety and worries, the 'worm in the bud' as Frayling aptly labels it, twist the drama into something quite foetid and unpleasant, her face is a map of this troubling territory and she, like the audience, enters a state of confusion and bewilderment. All of them are innocent in their particular way and the film shows how both adults and children can be blemished by unhealthy obsessions and unsettling environments.

A superb film, beautifully shot and constructed, with gorgeous costumes from Motley and fantastic sets from Wilfrid Shingleton and the benefits of shooting in such a superb location as Sheffield Park in East Sussex with its Gothic country house and Capability Brown gardens. The Blu-ray boasts a pristine transfer with very few instances of dirt or speckles and with this now in high definition there is certainly more detail available from the transfer released by the BFI back in 2006. The black and white cinematography is sharp and clear where it needs to be, picking out fine detail in faces, costumes, sets and imagery such as water and flowers. A lovely transfer deserving of a classic film and probably the best it will ever look on your monitors at home. The mono sound is very good and has excellent clarity for dialogue and reproduces the complexity in the natural and yet nightmarish sounds of a haunted English summer. 

Special Features
  • Commentary - Professor Christopher Frayling absolutely knows his stuff and this is a prime example of how good, how fact filled, and fascinating commentaries like this can be. He explores the film's development, Capote's script and Clayton's use of imagery very thoroughly. Highly recommended.
  • Video Introduction - Fraying returns to Sheffield Park for this 25 minute piece to camera that again summarises very well the film's creation and reception in 1961 and takes us to the various locations used in the film.
  • Designed by Motley - a new feature for this release that looks at the British designers Motley and their costumes created for the film. This is full of costume sketches accompanied by an informed and detailed narration.
  • The Bespoke Overcoat & Naples Is A Battlefield -  two short films from Jack Clayton. The former is Jack Clayton's first film as director - a 30 minute Oscar and BAFTA award-winning short starring Alfie Bass and David Kossoff - and the latter is an uncredited directorial 14 minute debut from 1944 and made with the RAF Film Production unit. 
  • Trailer & booklet - the US trailer and a very detailed and well illustrated booklet with Jeremy Dyson's affectionate essay, pieces on the film, Clayton, the two shorts, Freddie Francis and the costume designers Motley.
Fantastic package. Essential purchase.

The Innocents (BFI Blu-ray - Region B - Cert 12 - BFIB1032 - Released 23rd August 2010)

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