(1961) dir. Jack Clayton
An elegant and stylish adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents certainly has a well-earned reputation as on of the better “ghost story” films of the genre. Shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Freddie Francis, the film uses the lush English country estate very effectively, with an eye toward nature and a narrative haunted or pregnant with meanings.
As in James’ story, there is a conflation of reality. Are the children haunted and possessed by their late governess and valet? Is the new governess really protecting them or is she the one whose repressed desires are projected out on the innocent children? There is a heady mixture of sexual repression, desire, suggestions of child molestation, even incest, played out against a genuine point of fear and isolation.
Director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Francis use slow dissolves from scene to scene that give double exposures and contrasts of images sustained screen time. The duality of images is also played out in reflections, Deborah Kerr’s reflected image in the window pane against that of the ghost of Quint, the valet. The first glimpse of Flora, the girl, reflected in the water, the water in which the governess had drowned. The visual play is elegant and sustained, contrasting with the more concrete images of the stately home and the lush gardens.
Additonally, images of eerie statuary evoke in contrast, unearthly, nearly demonic visions, uncovered around corners, hiding in shrubbery, looming in shadowy backgrounds. And also interestingly, every time the Kerr touches the flowers, petals begin to fall. Is she the corruptor?
Truly, as elegant and effective of a ghost story as you’ll find, rich visually, and thematically. Truman Capote has a shared screen credit for the script, which takes James’ work, which is so full and yet so psychological, and visualizes it without losing the text’s sense of conflation, double-reading, and eerieness.