The Innocents

The Innocents

Jack Clayton

UK, 1961


Review by Jenny Jediny

Posted on 27 October 2005

Source Fox DVD

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Malevolence connected to and, more effectively, caused by children elicits great discomfort and fear in cinema. There is the mental anxiety and distress from the thought of such innocents being capable of causing harm, combined with the eerie visual and aural elements that accompany such terror. For example, the starched perfection of The Bad Seed’s Rhoda disguising her hateful vengeance and capability for murder; a 12-year-old Regan spewing vomit and expletives at her mother and the clergy; and (a personal favorite) young Danny riding his Big Wheel down the halls of The Overlook only to encounter not merely a child’s, but an adult’s worst nightmares. Children, so often condescended to for overactive imaginations, become the authority figures in these films, with powerful or supernatural abilities that adults can neither access nor comprehend.

The Innocents focuses on two such children, Flora and Miles, a pair of seemingly precocious orphans. Bright and somewhat preternatural, the two are kept at a psychological distance, almost in observation, as we are gradually clued into the unnatural state surrounding them. The film’s opening indicates a disquiet and unease, with a black screen accompanied by a young girl’s voice singing, only to be followed by the sound of cries and the image of hands folded in what may be prayer. Hired as a governess, the nervous and imaginative Miss Giddens seems overwhelmed from the start, as she is essentially given sole custody of the children by their uninterested uncle. At first she is enchanted by the children, both possessing charm and incredible poise, and very fond of one another, sharing secrets, and walking as if attached at the hip. However, Miss Giddens soon feels ill at ease with the close relationship Flora and Miles share, along with other strange things around the house. She soon hears a voice calling for Flora that seems to have no physical source, has visions of a man on the roof, walking to and fro, only to find Miles there playing alone, and then there is the relentless questioning, from the house’s history to the demise of her predecessor, the governess Miss Jessel, with an increasing insistence. Is Miss Giddens merely curious or compiling a rather complex case against the children, whom she soon believes possessed?

The film is intricately composed and effectively so, never providing a clear answer to this question. Certainly Miss Giddens has a rather bizarre and repressed personality, but this being Victorian England, what single woman doesn’t? Her potential madness conjures the era’s more hypocritical characteristics, namely the views on male and female sexuality that stereotyped women as pure beings with no need or desire for sex. As an unmarried woman spending the bulk of her time with small children, Miss Giddens has little chance for any romantic prospects, let alone an opportunity to release any sexual tensions that may lead to the behavior then deemed hysteria.

Indeed, the hysteria begins, quietly but with a strong undertone of sexuality. There is a peculiar attraction Miss Giddens has for Miles, commencing when she learns of Miles’ expulsion from school, only vaguely remitted in a letter as due to his frightening behavior towards other students. Miss Giddens voices her concern, not over Miles’ expulsion so much, but rather over Miles’ threat in contaminating the house upon his return. The idea of pollution is strengthened with the slow revelation of Miss Jessel’s story, as Miss Giddens learns not only of her suicide, but a love affair involving the house manager Quint. It is unclear if it is the violent death or the torrid love affair that haunts Miss Giddens more; when she hears of their passion, in “rooms used by daylight as though they were dark woods,” it is uncertain if she is fixating on the tale for proof of the children’s’ possession or to satisfy her own dark fantasies. When Miss Giddens moves forward to dispose of the two “abominations,” she displays a frightening determination that only sees the children as figures in need of purging.

Although the film remains ambiguous in exactly what is haunting this house and its inhabitants, the children remain central to the mystery. Certainly there are eerie occurrences experienced by Miss Giddens, from Quint’s figure appearing at a window to her frightening walk through the house by candlelight, accompanied by unmanifested laughter and whispers. Both Miss Jessel and Quint are alive in this house, but perhaps not in the way Miss Giddens has convinced herself; rather than demons or ghosts that stand at the lake’s edge, perhaps both figures haunt the children in more tragic ways, with Flora unable to speak of her former governess without becoming hysterical, and the fatherless Miles (also the first person to find Quint’s dead body) learning both his charm and cruelty from the abusive and exploitative Quint. The attachment the children formed to both Jessel and Quint is certainly unhealthy, but its effects have been far more psychological than spiritual.

I would imagine — having only seen the film on DVD — that the film must be a remarkable experience on screen (in illustrious Cinemascope), with corners that fade into an endless black, the fantastic chiaroscuro effect in the film’s more frightening scenes, and widescreen compositions that emphasize the fore- and background—this technique specifically is most effective in numerous shots of Miss Giddens and the children in which they are framed in this style, illustrating a chilly composure on the child’s face while still emphasizing Miss Giddens’ growing horror in the background. Watching The Innocents I was struck by the simplicity of these camera movements and angles, how much power is held in a carefully composed shot rather than the shaky Seadicam we have grown accustomed to in horror films. The film is a great reminder of how startling a figure in black can be, suddenly standing at a distance quite still and without explanation, in comparison to a CG ghoul thrown at one’s face, causing more of a racket than a scare. A classic ghost story in its own right, The Innocents remains largely effective due to its reliance on the incredible amount of anxiety produced, not through monsters or faceless killers, but rather one’s own overactive imagination.

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