Film Title: The Innocents
Director: Jack Clayton
Starring: Deborah Kerr, Michael Redgrave, Peter Wyngarde, Megs Jenkins
Running Time: 100 min
Henry James wasn’t all that proud of The Turn of the Screw. Yet that terrific little ghost story has proved to be the most influential and resonant of this works. Benjamin Britten turned it into an opera. Later films such as The Others owe it a great debt. Memories of Michael Winner’s notorious The Nightcomers, a 1971 prequel starring Marlon Brando, still sends the wrong sorts of shivers down spines. With apologies to Mr Britten, the greatest translation of the story remains Jack Clayton’s 1961 film.
The picture took a convoluted route from page to screen. Truman Capote, of all people, worked from William Archibald’s theatrical adaptation to deliver a version that – with its intimations of repressed sexuality – allowed in flavours of Capote’s own southern mayhem. John Mortimer (still a decade-and-a-half away from Rumpole) later stepped up to tweak the dialogue.
The story does not deviate much from James’s 1898 novella. Following an interview with the uninterested uncle (Michael Redgrave) of two orphaned children, the socially inexperienced Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is employed as governess to his wards. The children are chillingly polite. But there are hints of an awful secret. Soon Miss Giddens is having visions.
Photographed in monochrome by the great Freddie Francis, The Innocents finds sinister implications in every corner. Faces appear at windows. Lonely figures lurk on the other side of lakes. But the film is most remarkable for its engagement with deflected and sublimated sexuality.
Then touching 40, Kerr deals in a kind of polite agitation that invites the suggestion that the ghostly manifestations may result from her own repression. Tales of sordid goings on between the previous governess and a valet poison the atmosphere further. A kiss between Miss Giddens and her male charge was unsettling enough to trigger memos from 20th Century Fox.
There will be no spookier evening out this Christmas. Fans of 1970s telly will certainly savour an unholy appearance by Peter Wyngarde, the man behind Jason King’s cravat.