Are Deborah Kerr’s latest charges as innocent as they seem?
Miss Giddens, a governess takes on her first job looking after two young children in a secluded country estate.
The Innocents (1961) – Trailer, BFI Trailers and photos from 20th Century Fox.
1961 was a year for some fantastic movies and also the births of some amazing future movie stars. So with this wealth of talent on offer, I signed up for Movie Movie Blog Blog’s Birthday inspired blogathon. Kinda ironically I’d just added my film choice of West Side Story (1961) for another blogathon, and this film was also released this year.
On reading more about this year in film, I dallied with film choices including Burn After Reading (2008) this one of my movie favourites of all time. It has a great Coen Brothers ensemble cast of somebodies. These include George Clooney, who was born this year.
However, in the end, I chose a much-acclaimed psychological horror film, The Innocents (1961). With the bonus of it starring a much-loved, Golden Hollywood leading lady, Deborah Kerr. The Innocents has Kerr donning her late 1900s Victorian styled frocks once more and returning to her governess role.
This was in The King and I (1956) opposite Yul Brynner, a much cherished 1950s musical. Here I remember her
singing lipsynching and dancing in her governess role (as Anna, governess to the King of Siam’s children) with great affection. This is a role I cherish compared with that dire, dream dance sequence.
This was as part of Brynner’s cameo appearance in 1973’s Westworld’s sequel, Futureworld (1976) I’d advise seeing Futureworld a long time after any of his movies before this. As it may ruin your image of Brynner forever as he is seen lassoing Miss Danner in their erm, romantic sequence. Anyway more on The Innocents movie…
Anyway onto the plot… Before the opening credits, a haunting song is heard, namely O Willow Waly, Til My Lover returns to me. This is in Isla Cameron’s solo, with no music and it tells of a deeply sad woman now suicidal and alone. Bereft, she hopes to be reunited with her dead love. This is her man who she now hopes to return to her love in death.
After the darkness of the lyrics of this ballad, the credits are shown, with film shots of Kerr being seen and heard of a dimly lit and rambling to herself. Kerr appears alone, vulnerable and upset, as she wrestles with her thoughts and conscience in prayer.
The film starts with a character simply credited as The Uncle (Redgrave) – in his five minutes of The Innocents fame – as a wealthy bachelor about town. As Uncle to the orphaned, Flora (Pamela Frankin) and Miles (Martin Stephens), he wants a governess who’ll look after the children and not bother him about them. At all and for any reason, as he has no room in his life for children, even as relatives.
This governess post would mean taking full responsibility for them. He says this almost charmingly, which is a wee bit sinister tbh. And despite her inexperience, he employs Miss Giddens (Kerr). She agrees to this role and travels to the Bly country estate to take on her new – and first role – as a governess.
On route to the isolated, Gothic country house, it seems in an idyllic setting with a lake on its beautiful grounds. Giddens meets and forms a good relationship with housekeeper Mrs Grose (Jenkins). We meet the first of her charges wee Flora, who is a terribly lovely English child. Initially, Flora seems a wee bit too squeaky clean for my liking, and almost like she’ll grow up to be one of The Stepford Wives (1975). Anyway, wee Flora charms the socks of Miss Giddens, as the two get on immediately.
So far so good, then it’s revealed that Miles, her older brother is returning. With a letter saying he’s been expelled from school. However, this mature boy is just as sweet – but to me as oddly disturbingly as English and twee as his sibling – and it’s hard for Miss Giddens to see him as “the bad influence” on his peers he’s supposed to be. But wee Miles is a wee bit creepily flirty with Giddens.
After a time, Giddens becomes concerned for the children’s welfare after her belief that she sees two people on the grounds, a man and a woman. These, along with hearing disembodied voices and the intense closeness of the children excluding her from their conversations, add to her worry.
After finding a picture of the man she’s seen, Miles reciting a poem of a man rising from his grave and speaking with Mrs Grose about it, Giddens fears for the worst. She feels these people are apparitions and ghosts of the former valet, Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and his lover, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop).
Miss Jessel was Miss Gidden’s predecessor as the children’s governess. And Mrs Grose tells her that Quint and Jessel were in an abusive relationship, in which it’s suggested they made love inappropriately in front of others working in the house. It is inferred this behaviour may have been seen by the children. A drunken Quint died accidentally, with Miss Jessel drowning herself in the lake in a depressive state after his death.
Giddens now fears they are possessing the children, after their untimely deaths. And the ghostly pair resumes their relationship through the children. Her fears reach a climax, with Mrs Grose not believing her concerns. Then Miles kisses her passionately after a telling off for walking alone on the grounds…
The Innocents was based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. The plot and the screenplay were adapted by William Archibald and Truman Capote. These authors changed the premise where was suggested that Miss Giddens was experiencing frightening delusions surrounding her charges, rather than the original’s paranormal reality.
However on watching the film, I feel that it is quite ambiguous in nature in events throughout the film, and open to your own interpretation of events. The Innocents was filmed deliberately in black and white which adds to this chilling ambience, which I believe would be lost in a colourised version of this film.
The use of objects and people appearing and disappearing almost randomly combined with barely lit sets add to this terrifying theme. This increases as the intensity of Gidden’s unreal thoughts magnify. These are seen to terrifying proportions as if we are with Giddens in her angst and solitude in her thoughts.
This reminded me of the scenes in Shutter Island (2010) where Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels is convinced that he will find the escaped patient he seeks in Shutter Island hospital’s remote lighthouse. The pioneering use of synthesiser music and the spooky musical score complements the film’s governess’ perceived terror.
The use of the song, O Willow Waly, (Til My Lover Returns to Me) is heard throughout the movie. On two occasions, it is sung by wee Flora and heard in a music box. The nature of its lyrical content then becomes more disturbing as it adds support to Giddens’ apparent strange beliefs.
With wee Flora singing this, it is incongruous with her character as a young child, as an adult-themed lament. But with this music played in Flora’s music box, alternatively shows her childlike innocence. Like Sleuth (1972) this film has an incredibly wee cast with just a few characters with three appearing all too briefly adding to the feelings of intensity and claustrophobia.
Kerr acting opposite Meg Jenkins – remembered also fondly of the musical Oliver! (1968) – and the patriarch of the Redgrave clan, Michael Redgrave. The children in the cast came from classic horror films, with Stephens in Village of the Dammed (1960) or grew up with memorable roles, Franklin in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).
I was shocked to learn this classically acclaimed movie inspired a colour, 1971 prequel. This film, The Nightcomers was directed by Michael Winner. Starring one of the film’s oddest collaborations with the cast of Stephanie Beacham (as Miss Jessel), Thora Hird (as Mrs Grose) and Marlon Brando (as Quint). In contrast with this film, the casting seems quite twee and reserved. With Flora and Miles played by older children.
Off-screen, The Innocents then like a description which could quite possibly describe the cast and crew making this 1961 movie, as after hearing of the almost absurd 1971 prequel and seeing its trailer. But I could be wrong in assuming it will go on my guilty pleasures page. But until I review it this year it’s a case of the innocents until proven guilty.
Weeper Rating: 0/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂🙂 🙂10
Hulk Rating: /10
The 1961 Blogathon 2018, No 21 and Hollywood Genes’ Always A Bridesmaid Film Blogathon 2019 No 41
This film review was added to Movie Movie Blog Blog’s 1961 blogathon and Hollywood Genes’ Always A Bridesmaid Film Blogathon. Other posts on this site with this cast include Kerr in 5 Golden Hollywood Greats and The King and I. Meg Jenkins appears in Tiger Bay and Asylum. Peter Wyngarde in Doctor Who and One Step Beyond. Pamela Franklin starred in episodes of Fantasy Island, The Love Boat and Thriller. Martin Stephens in Village of the Damned.