Bly spirits: revisiting Jack Clayton’s The Innocents

The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s haunting take on The Turn of the Screw, is back in cinemas. Viv Wilby plucks up the courage to get spooked all over again.

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The inclusion of The Innocents in the BFI’s current gothic season feels right for our times; the film taps straight into topical anxieties about childhood and sexuality and the grip the dead can hold over the living.

Like the best gothic horror, The Innocents is a film that withholds more than it reveals. It’s a film of hints and suggestions, of conspiratorial whispers and giggles, of secrets that cannot be told. There are symbols of innocence corrupted: a beetle emerging from the mouth of a stone cherub, a dead bird concealed under a pillow, rotting white roses. But it dances around the precise nature of this corruption and asks whether it is real, or all in the mind. When, right at the start of the film, Michael Redgrave asks Deborah Kerr if she has a good imagination, because it is imaginative people who best understand the truth, it’s as if the director Jack Clayton is asking the same of us.

An adaptation of an adaptation, The Innocents derives ultimately from Henry James’ celebrated ghost story The Turn of the Screw, but is actually a film version of William Archibald’s 1950 stage version. It was Archibald who changed the title to The Innocents and invented the name Miss Giddens for James’ nameless heroine. He gets a screenwriting  credit alongside Truman Capote, although it was Capote who massively refined and improved on Archibald’s treatment. Its stage origins are evident in the film, which has a spareness and efficiency to it. There are only five speaking parts, a central alliance turns into a power struggle, and each scene does its job of work, adding a little more to our understanding of what is happening, or might have happened.

But to dismiss it as simply a filmed play would do a disservice to one of the most unsettling pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. Even on what must have been my third or fourth viewing, I had nightmares. Shot in stark black and white by Freddie Francis, it takes the most hoary old gothic cliches — a rattling windowpane, a sputtering candle, a midnight patrol down a corridor of closed doors — and remixes them into something genuinely chilling. At other times, it throws out the rulebook: one of its most frightening sequences happens in broad daylight, on a lazy, hazy summer afternoon. Shot over the late winter and spring of 1961, the action takes us from an overripe summer to the chill of autumn, yet Francis manages to capture both the dazzling glare of a summer’s day and the drear of October rain. There’s brilliant sound design as well: a buzzing fly, distant voices carried on the wind, snatches of old songs, sniggering and whimpering heard from behind closed doors.

The premise is this: Miss Giddens takes a job (her first) as governess at Bly, a great country house somewhere in the south of England. Her charges are Miles and Flora, two orphaned children whose guardian uncle has outsourced all responsibility for their care to a succession of governesses and the small staff he retains at the house. At first charmed by her idyllic surroundings, Miss Giddens soon finds the big empty house unsettling and she is disturbed by the children, who exhibit some peculiar and precocious behaviour. In unguarded moments, Mrs Grose the housekeeper alludes to some past unpleasantness that has upset the children. Miss Giddens notices a man hanging around the grounds and, some time later, a woman, who similarly seems to stare and then vanish. But Mrs Grose and the children deny that there is anyone there.

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Questions present themselves. Could these figures be the ghosts of Peter Quint the valet and Miss Jessel the previous governess whose violent and destructive affair led to their mysterious deaths? And what do they want with the children? Can they have anything to do with Miles’ expulsion from school? Or is the lonely and repressed Miss Giddens a hallucinating neurotic? If there is corruption at Bly, maybe it is she who is the corrupter?

In her own view, Deborah Kerr did her best work in The Innocents. Approaching 40, she was a good deal older than the 20-year-old envisaged by Henry James in his original story, but her maturity only adds depth and pathos. She’s a woman for whom life and youth have passed by, who professes to love children ‘more than anything’, but is unlikely to have any of her own. Christopher Frayling notes: “Kerr was particularly effective when catching sight of the ghosts just before the audience did: in [Observer film critic] Penelope Gilliat’s memorable phrase, ‘her lips drew back like a horse that smells fire’. Over the course of the film, Deborah Kerr presented inexperience, then excitement, then anxiety, then doubt, then fascination, then fear, and finally terror.” *

There are also witty (albeit probably unintended) callbacks to a couple of Kerr’s other roles. One is Anna Leonowens, the capable British governess in The King and I: as Kerr’s crinoline-clad Miss Giddens glides up the paths of Bly, trilling her hellos to Flora, you half expect her to burst into a chorus of ‘Getting to Know You’. And as Miss Giddens sets her face against the forces of sex, there are echoes of Sister Clodagh, the missionary nun played by Kerr in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus

Kerr’s patrician beauty is contrasted with the plain and provincial Mrs Grose, played superbly by Megs Jenkins. Gentle and hesitant, she shares something of Miss Giddens’ fears, but perhaps lacks her imagination. There are no ghosts, she avers, only bad memories. The dead are dead, let’s leave it that way. We’re left to judge whether she’s the voice of sense and reason, or a frightened woman in denial.

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Miles and Flora are played by Martin Stephens (who had kiddy horror form from Village of the Damned) and Pamela Franklin (probably best known for playing Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a few years later). Both are excellent, but particularly Stephens who has more work to do as the creepily self-possessed Miles. He gets some of the film’s most memorably disturbing scenes: an incantation to a dead lord declaimed during a dressing-up game, and a lingeringly inappropriate kiss for Miss Giddens. But Clayton doesn’t overegg their strangeness. Everything they do and say can be viewed as nothing more sinister than childish eccentricity. Their outbursts, towards the end of the film, are in response to direct provocation by Miss Giddens.

Michael Redgrave, playing the children’s bachelor uncle, imbues his short, expositionary scene not only with urbane sophistication, but flirtation and even a hint of perversion. He makes the throwaway observation that his London life amuses him, but it’s not the sort of amusement that one can ‘suitably share with children’. The question of what is and is not suitable for children stalks the film. Boundaries between the adult and child worlds are blurred; the film’s musical motif, the song ‘O Willow Waly’ is a lament for a dead lover but sung in a tremulous child’s voice. Miles seems old beyond his years, at times assuming a protective, patriarchal role. When Miss Giddens is startled by a banging window blowing out the single candle burning in Miles’ bedroom, he urges her not to be frightened, “It was only the wind, my dear. The wind blew it out.”

Peter Wyngarde (of Jason King fame) earns joint second billing as Peter Quint. It’s a curious decision given he has no lines and barely two minutes of screen time. Described by Miss Giddens as ‘handsome and obscene’, he’s a Byronic presence in this film so dominated by women and children. But he’s not a truly a haunting presence in the way the forlorn Miss Jessel is. A long-haired woman in black, she’s seen twice standing in the reeds on the far side of a lake, once, very briefly, sobbing in the schoolroom, and there’s just the barest glimpse of her skirts, disappearing down a corridor. Maybe it’s because we never see her in close up, and can never make out her face that she’s quite so unnerving. Pauline Kael called Miss Jessel ‘the best ghost I’ve ever seen’… ‘like looking at a memory of an old photograph’. And perhaps that’s it, that she’s the embodiment of a bad memory, and nothing can scare us like we can scare ourselves.

The Innocents is released by the BFI in cinemas nationwide as part of its Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film season.

* Aspects of this blogpost were informed by Christopher Frayling’s excellent and highly recommended BFI monograph, published this year. He provides a fascinating account of the making of The Innocents, particularly the evolution of the screenplay and the techniques deployed by Jack Clayton and Freddie Francis.

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