‘The Innocents’ review

6 10 2010

[written by writer and editor (and Ghost Appreciation Month team member), KV Taylor]

Oh, one of my favorite stories, so beautifully interpreted! Loved this one.

A young woman takes her first governess job from a charming jerk of an uncle who wants her–without ever referring to him for decisions, complaints, or any child or house related business–to take charge of his young niece and nephew. She’s charmed into the situation by said uncle, in spite of trepidation about the last governess’s untimely death and the oddities of his expectation. When she gets to the country house, called Bly, she’s again charmed by both the house and the children–first little Flora, than the elder Miles, who is mysteriously expelled from school.

Other than the housekeeper Mrs. Grose and a few servants, there is no other company at Bly. The children are lovely–and extraordinarily precocious. Miss Giddens seems to enjoy the life, though she obviously wants to see her employer again, until she begins seeing people that should not be there. Through a series of tense and well-timed events, we discover she’s seeing the ghosts of the last governess Miss Jessel and the uncle’s valet, Quint. Said valet and governess, as it turns out, carried on an unsavory, often abusive affair, and conducted their business–pretty much all of it–in front of the kids, and this before their violent and unpleasant deaths. All this while Mrs. Grose effectively watched, powerless to save the children from the awful effects.

Here comes the leap in logic–and this is the point up to which the viewer has no doubt that a genuine ghost story is unfolding: Miss Giddens decides that Quint and Jessel’s specters haunt the children in order to possess them, and that the only thing that will save Miles and Flora is absolute confession on their parts. We’re not actually given an explanation for either supposition–except that the little girl has a penchant for music and dance like her old governess, and the little boy is rather more world-wise than his years should allow. But Miss Giddens sees the children laughing together and assumes they’re plotting and “talking horrors”, and sure, their behavior is sometimes creepy–but for all that we never really get confirmation that there are real specters. No one else ever admits to seeing them–Flora even screams at her that she does not, and that Miss Giddens is insane. Mrs. Grose seems to share this opinion. So do we, though we’re not sure where to imply causality, by then.

After Flora tells her she’s mad (and goes rather mad herself, though we’re not told if it’s fever or a mental breakdown), Miss Giddens sends the little girl away with Mrs. Grose. In one of the saddest scenes ever, Miss Giddens confronts Miles alone, hoping he’ll save himself with a confession. She presses him about Quint’s specter, freaking the boy out more and more, until she pretty much induces a panic attack in him. She follows him out into the night, Quint’s specter appears to her, the boy obviously can’t see it though she shakes him and yells–and the poor little guy, whose been looking weaker and weaker as the scene goes on, may or may not actually see the ghost in the end. Either way, he drops dead.

What an ending, huh? I need a drink after that.

It’s a great movie. The acting is excellent, the script is pure James–even the bits he didn’t write!–and there’s a stunning use of imagery. In particular animals are used to good effect–Flora’s interest in a spider eating a butterfly, a striking moment where a large insect drops sickly from the mouth of a decaying statue, it all sets your teeth on edge. Sound is used to similar effect, which is even more impressive–her first glimpse of the specter of Quint is preceded by animal and garden sounds, and then it all goes perfectly silent as the sun washes out her vision, and then his dark figure appears on top of the tower. It’s the only moment of its kind in the whole film, and signifies a huge change. Flora’s tortoise and Miles’s pigeons are ever-present themes that feel a lot more Steinbeck than James. And they work.

And there’s still that ambiguity about the whole thing–was there ever a ghost or is this a story about a woman going mad? It doesn’t come in until nearly halfway through the film, but like The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents would lose something without it. The ambiguity is presented very differently in the film, however, and those differences are some of what make The Turn of the Screw itself one of the most horrific stories I’ve ever read.

Just not for the reasons you’d think. You can interpret The Turn of the Screw as an obvious ghost story or a story that is solely and completely about a woman going so mad that she in the end kills one of her charges. I opt for the latter. Partly because if it is a straight ghost story, it loses a lot of its genius–the masterful use of the unreliable narrator pales, and James’s lifetime interest in presenting the damages society does to the psyche–feminine in particular–feels wasted. But I could talk all day about that, so I’ll spare you (though I’ll probably rant about it on my own blog, because I can’t resist)–and ask for your opinion:

Are there any ghosts? Was she mad? Which came first, if both are true? Is it different in the movie than in the book?

And man, what a story that still has us asking these questions all those years later.

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2 responses

6 10 2010
juliettedee

Terrific post! This movie never gets old– always good to watch around Halloween. Love your thoughts on the ambiguity. I especially love the moment when, for the first time, we see the ghost not through her eyes, but behind her. We see her and the “ghost.” Brilliance! Gets me every time. Keep up the good work.

7 10 2010
Mark Deniz

As mentioned before, we two have very similar thoughts about this film (and the book) and the imagery of both. I think it’s testament to the writing of James and the direction of Clayton that we can even begin to think either of these are ghost stories, as they are clearly about insanity.

And insanity from one wholly responsible for the welfare of two small children is absolutely terrifying!

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