Not expecting to be disturbed by a 1961 black and white thriller was my first error of judgement of the evening as I took my seat in prime position at a picture house last Halloween weekend. Not expecting the absence of a pillow to cause serious distress was my second. My thoughts as I entered the cinema were something along the lines of: I’ll probably find the next hour or so a little far fetched, a bit laughable when it comes to special effects and interspersed with an ominous uttering of, “Do they ever return to possess the living?” à la the trailer. It soon became apparent that I was going to be very wrong.
From the opening sequence through to the final shot of The Innocents, I realised that although this is an adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw -- often referred to as a ‘ghost’ novella -- the screenplay is as much about the governess, Miss Giddens, as it is about the ghosts. She is a combination of fragility and strength, an English rose with a steely determination beneath, who wholeheartedly accepts the responsibility of looking after an orphaned niece and nephew of an uncaring, authoritarian uncle in a faraway mansion. And so we have our isolated and, at times, debatably unhinged protagonist left alone to solve the mystery of the mansion’s deceased inhabitants herself.
As the governess comes to realise that there is something more sinister to the seemingly ‘darling’ children, Flora and Miles, her attempts to share her concerns are frequently rebutted by her only confidante Mrs Grose, the housekeeper. Suspicions and secrets become part and parcel of everyday life and Miss Giddens soon learns that if you smell a rat (or indeed, see a ghost) then you need to shut up and keep it to yourself. This in itself wouldn’t be such a problem, if it weren’t for the fact that Miss Giddens believes the children are possessed. Possessed by two adults in fact -- the dead ones. Who also happen to be living out their love affair through the children. And it is from here on in the film becomes increasingly disturbing.
The Innocents succeeds where many recent ghost stories fail; most of our fear derives from what is not seen or not said, rather than the horror of the ghosts themselves. We do not know why the small boy Giles was dismissed from school, why he wanders in the garden at night and why he kisses Miss Giddens in such a sexual way. We do not know why Flora hums the song of a music box from the attic over and over again, goes to dance by the lake alone or panders to Giles. Most hints of wrongdoing are through the children and the ghosts appear only every so often, and only to Miss Giddens, which leaves us wondering why everyone else can’t see them.
There is also an element of guilt as a viewer. To empathise with Miss Giddens and accuse two young children of being inhabited by abusive, lascivious spirits seems somehow very wrong. Especially if that accusation turns out to be false. After all, the Governess could just be losing her mind. The references to her prim upbringing, prettiness, and the flattery she feels receiving letters from the wealthy uncle who has employed her do not go unnoticed. Could it be that it is her own repressed sexual identity being played out by her vivid imagination?
If you are the kind of cinema goer who prefers leaving with the answers rather than questions then this film may not be for you. However, if you’re keen on Freudian references combined with divinely atmospheric scenes, chilling glimpses of ghosts, superbly timed cacophonies and sinister children who pretend like butter wouldn’t melt, then The Innocents should be high on your Halloween film hit list. The trailer’s question will remain as unanswered as your musings on Freud, but you will be rewarded with a British classic that is so much more than just a ghost film.
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The Innocents Trailer