The Innocents – Dreaded Haze of Darkness (1961)


Borrowing from Ernest Hemmingway’s style of storytelling, the Iceberg style, with the storyteller revealing only 10% and leaving the rest to the audiences, British Filmmaker Jack Clayton (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) presents an unusually unique movie in form of The Innocents. A psychological thriller and horror, the Innocents is a story—distinct in concept, blurred in execution, and subtle in the psychological representation of various elements of sexuality, deceit, lust, passion, grief, and solitude engulfed in the movie. Adapted from Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw, the movie version stars the legendary Scottish actress Deborah Kerr—possessing a plethora of classics in her tray—From Here to Eternity, Black Narcissus, King and I, An Affair to Remember—as Governess Miss Giddens. Supporting her in this journey and playing central roles are Martin Stephens as Miles, Pamela Franklin as Flora, and Megs Jenkins as Mrs. Grose.

In historical terms, the Innocents is a landmark movie for British Cinema. Unearthing a puzzling concept, Jack Clayton designs every scene of this dark thriller keeping the psychological notions of viewers in his eyes and stimulating responses through the atmospheric coldness, visual delusions, and the qualms of characters—sometimes appearing, other time vanishing into mirage. Whilst being a thriller more so than an outright horror, Clayton captures the imagination of viewers through a slow, deliberate style of storytelling. The story is simple, but jumbled with a pile of complexities—as what appears hardly serves the truth, and the untold truth comes through depiction of characters and their history, as opposed to story progression and a series of subsequent events.


The guardian of young Miles and Flora, their Uncle (Michael Redgrave) appoints the inexperienced Miss Giddens as the Governess to his nephew and niece. Unbothered about them, he instructs Miss Giddens to take full responsibility of the children and not to trouble him with anything else. Upon arriving at Bly, she meets Flora and Mrs. Grose—the housemaid—and soon, she is joined by Miles, who is expelled from his school despite what would later turn out to be a startling revelation, as Miles seems to be a mature and elegant young boy. It didn’t take long before Miss Giddens observes unusual activities in the house, with the two siblings in the center of peculiar affairs. Provoked by their weird manners, Miss Giddens discovers the death of a valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and the consequent suicide of the former governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop)—realizing the two were “very much in love.” Mrs. Grose reveals how passionate of a relationship the two shared and many times shared physical lust in the opens charms of reality, not even slightly concerned about the eyes of the two wonderful children, or other staff members at the mansion. In the events that follow, Miss Giddens is convinced that the spirits of the two lovers are present and are alive in the bodies of the two Innocents; her task—to free them!

In 2010 an immensely popular movie possessing the title, Shutter Island invoked the perceptive intelligences of viewers all across the world. The less known truth is the fact that Shutter Island shares a distorted resemblance with the Innocents. Whilst the plots are completely different, the two movies carry forward the veil of psychological thrillers and bear the torch of greatness, as the genre of psychological thrillers is among the most difficult to actualize and deliver and when done successfully, there is no better artifact than watching a psychological, mind-twisting, imagination-flying, and eyes-stunning sensation on screen. The resemblance between these two hardly appears as such, if only for the crux of the storyline—the jellied form of movie interpretation.

Through the summary viewers may acknowledge the simplicity in the story, yet it is not the story that captures ones heart, it is the way the story unfolds on camera that makes viewers go eerie at times, warm at others, and completely tangled at the end. There are several layers of hidden messages in the movie and what makes the Innocents one of most oblivious, mysterious, and cryptic movies of its time is the psychological undercurrents hidden under each character. The character of Miss Giddens has her own set of repressions and a perspective—reflecting her nature, the staunch Christian ethics of that era, the middle-class lifestyle, and the freedom she found when she took the crown of the governess. On the other hand, the character of Miles showed tendencies that boys about to hit puberty would—but tendencies reflective of isolated living, abandonment, lack of family love and support, and most importantly—sexual abuse due to the disturbing association with Quint and Miss Jessel, who didn’t care if the children saw them perform acts of lustful insanity. For Flora, a rich and privileged young girl, she didn’t realize negative connotations, and lived far across without a motherly or fatherly figure. During her developmental phase, Quint and Miss Jessel were her most alarming influences, and due to their actions and lust for one another and disregard for the psychological and emotional health of the children, Flora developed her unique way of combating external threat—extreme mood swings, secretiveness, and a language—the result of harsh bamboozlement. With three perspectives colliding and the haunted past of the two lovers towering the building, the Innocents races towards a dreading climax—brushing aside all the sceneries—as the three characters are convinced of their righteousness, and when all three believe they are right, something has to give. The innocents have to suffer and fall in breath of reality.


The Innocents is an outright psychological movie—from the perspective of the central character Miss Giddens. Already amused by the unusual secretiveness of Flora and the striking maturity and flirtatious behavior of Miles towards Miss Giddens, the movie touches the issue of carnal, unsocial attraction between an infant and an adult. Whilst not in any manner explicit, suggestions surround the movie, especially for Miss Giddens who finds a dangerous maturity and puzzling polarity in Miles. With the overtones of sexual union between the two omnipresent characters in the movie, the story becomes all revolving around sexuality, and emotional turbulence for Miss Giddens, while it circulates around sexual abuse, loneliness, and psychological instability for the two children, especially Miles—expelled from school and a boy who is smart, astute, and very much capable of violence meditative of his age. In the case of Flora, she served the characteristics of young, pre-puberty girls in the myth of prosperity but without any support in her austerity. No wonder, the two children find solace in one another, and used to find solace in Quint as in the case of Miles, his role model and Jessel as in the case of Flora—her muse.

The stunning climax reveals the hallucination of Miss Giddens, somebody who is sexually repressed herself, and when she finds so much going on amidst the calamity of the mansion, the line between reality and her conflict against her desires is blurred by her psychological interpretation of the occurrences in this strange house. With no experience in handling children or such circumstances before, Miss Giddens shows her naivety by mishandling the incidences, although not entirely her fault as the children seemed in a labyrinth themselves and the fabricated happenings only triggered the revolver for her and the children too. At the end, with the departure of Miles, and the sensual kiss that she returns—signifies the death of innocence, the birth of sensuality into a land of temptations. For Miles, it was only darkness and for Miss Giddens, it was her corruption that events brought about and her conditionings catalyzed her to avoid.


Uncanny to modern cinema in certain ways, the Innocents is not just a movie with an imperative, intelligent screenplay and central plot, it can also serve as a school for filmmaking enthusiasts, film experts and critics, film historians, and any individual interested in the art of film behind the lens. There are primarily four facets of the movie that contributed in the impact of the scene, progression of story, as well as invoking the desired reaction: the Lighting, Atmosphere, Cinematography, and Music. For monochrome movies, there are few that have captured the scenic beauties and exploited cinematography at the level the Innocents manages. Rivaling the technological leap of today’s world, the movie utilizes atmospheric cinematography and lighting with such splendor, disparity, and variance that the untold message enters right into the viewer through the eyes straight into the emotions—without the logical brain interfering with interpretation. It is the usage of such diffusing lighting methods that creates a peculiar atmosphere—pleasant, haunted, sometimes both at the same time!

The combinative works of the Cinematographer (Freddie Francis), Art Director (Wilfred Shingleton), and Director is some of the best and most influential in the history of Cinema, as the result is one stunning aesthetic masterpiece, with psychological elements weaved together to create a fabled movie. For that reason alone, the movie should be in the list of must watch movies for any individual associated with film—physically and emotionally. The background score (Georges Auric) compliments the feelings of the characters, which it should—but the level of musical shocks that Auric persists is hardly in tune with the horror genre rather, he focuses on inducing slow, poisonous venom in viewers as they search—along with the central character—the end to the misery and myriad illusions of uncertainty, treachery, silent violence, and insanity.


Last but not without respect, the star of the screen was, undeniably, young Martin Stephens—delivering a mature performance beyond his years and charming the screen like an actor in repose would, with ease. Easy with the dialogs, subtle mannerisms resembling mental exertion, and the grace of a wise man—it seemed—Martin Stephens is annexed in the cult of young geniuses who portrayed their talents at such tender age. The Innocents is far beyond its time and era, and is a defining movie in the genre of thrillers. The movie isn’t scary, but it wasn’t intended to be! It is thrilling, spooky, and spine chilling; however—and one true masterpiece from Clayton and his team.

Images – Flickr, Tumblr, Cluttered Classic Attic, Cineplex, Lenin Imports


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