Originally published October 24th, 2012
I’ve watched The Innocents twice, and while it’s good I’m not considering it one of the best psychological horror films according to Martin Scorsese (hmm, he’s making his second appearance in the references this week). I applaud the cinematography, the story, and the acting from Deborah Kerr and Martin Stephens. The idea of sexual repression comes through loud and clear, one of the reasons this film is so groundbreaking; puut it all together and it makes a fine movie, but one I can’t see myself rewatching it again.
Lonely governess Miss. Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is given the job of watching two neglected children. The girl, Flora (Pamela Franklin) immediately takes to Miss Giddens, but Flora’s brother Miles (Martin Stephens) has been recently expelled from school for reasons he won’t divulge. When Miss Giddens learns of what happened to the last governess and her lover, she believes the two are trying to be resurrected by possessing the souls of the children.
The Innocents is based, in part, on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It has a Gothic atmosphere permeating the frame, from the old house, to the costumes and the sexual repression. The film’s time period is never stated but it’s safe to say it’s steeped in the Victorian era, opening itself up to Freudian analysis. The crux of the plot is Miss Giddens’s fear that the children have been corrupted by witnessing the sexual depravity of their former governess, Miss Jessel and her lover, a man named Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde). Interestingly, one of my classes has been discussing the Victorian fear of children discovering their sexuality and creating a secret around it. Ironically, the need to make sex a secret ends up making it the worst kept secret around, heightening interest in it (has the world changed since?). With that, the film explores the fear of innocence corrupted and the need to keep people in the dark about their own sexuality. Miss Giddens finds herself unable to cope with sexuality, forcing the children to “confess” to what they’ve seen as a means of absolving their sins, but also allowing her to discuss sex in some way.
It’s safe to say this is an overwhelming role for any actress and Deborah Kerr rises to the challenge. I’ve seen Kerr in a few films and she’s astounding here. Miss Giddens’s character appears to be a pseudo-Mary Poppins with her enthusiasm and dedication to her job and her charges. She genuinely loves children, especially Flora, who she has a sweet rapport with, and in the opening scenes she appears infatuated with their uncle (Michael Redgrave). As her concern for the children increases she keeps mentioning going to talk to their uncle, but never does. Is this her own psyche preventing her from visiting him due to her attraction? It’s apparent Miss Giddens has issues with men, as not only does she have a problematic relationship with the uncle but her relationship with Miles and, in a way, to Peter Quint is disturbing. Quint terrorizes Miss Giddens and yet he’s supposed to be dead! As she learns more about Quint and his sexual hold on Miss Jessel, it appears our new governess serves as a proxy, craving Quint and causing him to manifest. It could also explain her views towards Miles’s possession; from the minute the young boy and the governess meet there’s an attraction (it’s creepy just typing that). When the two ride in the carriage after Miles has been kicked out Miss. Giddens looks at him intently, it’s obviously not purely because she wants to derive why he was kicked out of school.
The child stars round out the cast well, creating two characters who could either be harmless children or possessed lovers. I feel they’re the former but the argument obviously is there for the latter. Pamela Franklin is adorable as the precocious Flora, but she doesn’t hold a candle to Martin Stephens as Miles. You might recognize Stephens’s name as he was the head of the bizarre alien children in the original Village of the Damned (1960) which came out a year before. Miles is completely different from that of David in Village of the Damned. Where David was an automaton, Miles is a mini-adult. He’s creepy in how sexual and flirtatious he is with Miss Giddens, obviously mature and older in his mind than his age allows. Miles is perceptive and understands that his uncle doesn’t care for him. It could be argued his relationship with Miss Giddens is a desire for attention, and his confusion of sexual attraction with the love of a parent going back to the corruption of children who discover their sexuality. The film came under fire for the relationship between Miles and Miss Giddens; Miles calls the older woman “my dear” and shares a kiss on the lips with Kerr, twice.
Supposedly The Innocents is the most expensive use of the CinemaScope technology and it’s used to beautiful effect. Vertical lines break up the composition of the frame and characters are often times placed at opposite ends of it. The frame’s expanse looks fantastic, and no matter the size of your television each shot looks huge. The film showcases the empty spaces, and the shadows in several scenes appear like the characters are the only things in the darkness. When Miss Giddens walks around with a candle, the area around her is pitch black making her appear to be in an otherworldly plane. The strongest scares are when things you don’t expect glide out of the darkness, such as the face of Peter Quint. At least twice in the film Quint’s face appears at a window and it’s perfectly executed both times. The first time Miss Giddens is standing at the window during a game of hide and seek. You don’t expect something to pop out behind her since a statue is in the garden; you believe, if anything, that statute will get in the way of any scare. That’s what makes the Quint moment so frightening because he seems to be inhabiting a different space away from the statute. Quint’s face itself is frightening for the lecherous and sexual quality of it. You take one look at this guy and it’s apparent he’s got dark intentions. There are also several staircase shots that are beautiful to behold. (I’m a sucker for staircases, particularly spiral ones.)
Is Miss Giddens really seeing ghosts or is her sexual repression getting the best of her? The film doesn’t present an answer and that works. I’m not a huge fan of The Innocents, but I enjoy the story and acting. The scares are effective and the use of darkness makes everything infinitely more ominous because you can’t see what’s not immediately in the beam of candlelight. The Innocents is the perfect movie to watch on a rainy night in the dark!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.