Director: Jack Clayton (UK). Year of Release: 1961
Miss Giddens has just been offered a job as a governess. Two kids have been orphaned, and their uncle has much more important things to do than to bother with them. The boy, Miles, has been sent off to private school, but there’s still the girl Flora to look after, and that’s before we start to think about the school holidays. Miss Giddens is told that she can treat them however she wants, on just one condition. She doesn’t bother the uncle with any of this-
Miss Giddens arrives at the country estate in Bly to be met by a housekeeper and Flora, who turns out to be a sweet moppet. Soon, Miles arrives. A letter arrives from his school which has been forwarded unread by the uncle. It turns out that Miles has been expelled. Although the letter is a little vague about the reasons for the expulsion it seems that Miles just weirds out his classmates.
You can see why. Miles has the body of a child but the vocabulary and sentence construction of an adult. At times, it feels like he is flirting with Miss Giddens. There’s also something slightly strange about Flora, but it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly what that is. This is one of the great strengths of The Innocents. If it were adults behaving oddly, that would just be a bit strange. Children doing the same thing is positively creepy. It’s in the title.
Miss Giddens learns from the servants about the previous housekeeper Miss Jessel, and her ex-lover, Quint, a valet working at Bly. Both had died in strange circumstances, and it seems that Quint’s relationship with Miss Jessel was somewhat unequal. On top of this, we hear at different times that Miss Jessel had undue influence on Flora and that Quint had a similar effect on Miles.
Miss Giddens starts having visions of both Quint and Miss Jessel – on the top of a tower or in the garden. This confirms earlier suspicions that we’d have of things being slightly out of kilter, when Miss Giddens heard voices calling out to Flora, although no-one was around. In the attic, she unearths a clown’s head and a musical box, which take on much more sinister characteristics than you’d initially give them credit for.
The Innocents is open to (at least) two quite different interpretations. One says that Miles and Flora have been somehow affected by their contact with Miss Jessel and Quint and through them are channelling some sort of evil spirits. In this interpretation, Miss Giddens is there to control the damage and to make the wild kids somehow more acceptable to civilised society.
Such a view is legitimate – this is a ghost story, after all, but it doesn’t really explain everything to me. I prefer to believe that Miss Giddens is the most unreliable of narrators and we are witnessing here move towards a full on nervous breakdown. Her visions are not shared by anyone else, and the basis for thinking that there is evil in Miles and Flora’s souls is pretty much entirely based on what we as an audience learn from Miss Giddens.
Both interpretations are possible, and either way you have to worry about the children. In esch case, they have been put under the charge of people who are clearly unqualified to do the job – people who are actually dangerous. This happens because ruling class parents think that childcare is something to be done by the servants. Miles and Flora are so creepy because they appear to have human needs when their job is to only speak when they’re spoken to.
With this in mind, the role of the successive governesses is interesting. They are obviously higher class than the illiterate servants and speak with a precise RP accent. And yet, the only power that they have is handed over to them by parents who have no interest in looking after their own children. They are also easy prey for predatory men. In such circumstances, it’s hardly surprizing that Misses Jessel and Giddens both appear to crack up.
The Innocents has a crack writing team – it’s based on a Henry James novella and co-written by Truman Capote. Between them, these writers have produced a screenplay which is perfectly paced and works on several levels – as a horror film, as a ghost story, and as a psychological study. In recent weeks, I’ve seen quite a few films which have given little obvious thought to writing and structure. They could learn a lot from this 60-year old work.