Retro Review: The Innocents (1961)

***No plot spoilers***

There have been quite a few film and television adaptations of the Henry James novel, ‘The Turn Of The Screw’. But this is undoubtedly the best, and is still a wonder to watch, fifty-seven years after it was released. Often described as a ‘Horror’ film, it is far from that, and is a psychological thriller with an element of a ghost story included. Beautifully shot in black and white by the brilliant Freddy Francis, script by Truman Capote, a soundtrack including electronic effects that were ground-breaking at the time, and the 19th century period setting flawlessly recreated.

Deborah Kerr has never been better cast in the lead role of Miss Giddens, the inexperienced but kindly new governess who arrives to take charge of the children in the country mansion of their wealthy uncle, who is away travelling. She is welcomed by the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, (Megs Jenkins, reliable as ever) and meets young Flora (Pamela Franklin) who she immediately adores. The other child, Miles, (Martin Stephens) is away at boarding school, so the small household enjoy the start of summer in the huge old house, and its amazing grounds. Flora and Miss Giddens bond perfectly, and the happy Mrs Grose is pleased to see some order return to the home.

Then the news comes that Miles has been expelled from school, and is soon to return home, to be taught by the governess. When he arrives, he refuses to discuss the reasons for his expulsion, but Miss Giddens is captivated by the polite young man, and delighted that Flora and Mrs Grose are so pleased to see him. However, all is not well in the mansion. Miss Giddens keeps seeing other people, in the house, and outside too. When she asks who else lives there, Mrs Grose is evasive, leaving her to suspect something, and to dig deeper. It transpires that the man she sees is the former Valet, the cruel Peter Quint, (Peter Wyngarde, with not much to do except look scary) and the woman who keeps appearing could be her predecessor, the former governess Miss Jessel. The problem is, nobody seems to see them except her, and Mrs Grose rejects the sightings, telling Miss Giddens that they are both dead. But she will not be put off, and asks more and more probing questions until she discovers that the two were lovers, and she becomes convinced that they are trying to occupy the souls of the children. We are left wondering if it is all just in the mind of the naive woman.

With a main cast of just four characters, this film never flags, and keeps your attention at all times. The set-piece ‘ghostly scenes’ are effective, but not remotely scary to a modern audience. Everything is just right, with superb acting from all involved, especially from the outstanding child actors, who display huge talent considering their youth. The tension builds slowly, helped by making full use of the house and grounds, great editing, and that mood-enhancing black and white photography.
This is film-making of the highest order, and a classic to treasure.

The trailer is very over the top, unfortunately.