Wednesday, October 2, 2019

THE INNOCENTS (1961) Blu-ray Review

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The Innocents (1961) d. Jack Clayton (UK) (100 min) (4th viewing)

In Victorian England, prim governess Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) is assigned to a country estate to care for two orphaned children, Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin). Upon her arrival, in addition to being occupied with her new duties, she slowly begins to suspect that the spirits of the former valet Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and governess Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop) have begun to influence – or even possess – her youthful charges. With increasingly supernatural occurrences at odds with her own pragmatic worldview, Giddens risks both life and sanity in a battle for the children’s souls, a battle that climaxes in unforgettable and devastating fashion.

In this spellbinding screen version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, producer/director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis conjure a haunting onscreen atmosphere with an eye for hypnotic, symbolic, chiaroscuro-tinged imagery, where the sunlit scenes are frequently more chilling than those set at night. Truman Capote and William Archibald’s screenplay also introduces layers of sexual frustration, repression, and hysteria which, while eliminating some of the original story’s ambiguity, supply an intriguing psychological angle that modern viewers will appreciate.

Kerr is undeniably the film’s anchor and rudder, and through the six-time Oscar nominee’s brilliant performance, the viewer walks the tightrope between strength and fear, conviction and doubt. Attempting to control forces which she does not understand, her Miss Giddens is a maelstrom of whirling emotions and it’s heartbreaking to watch her authoritarian fa├žade slowly, inexorably crumbling before our eyes as she attempts to exorcise the phantoms that have settled deep within the house… or are they her own repressed demons finally loosed from their bonds?

Franklin is terrific in her screen debut, displaying hints of the preternatural maturity that would show up again and again throughout her career (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Legend of Hell House). As her onscreen sibling, Stephens manages to top his captivating turn from the previous year’s Village of the Damned, delivering a magnificently layered turn that flickers between childlike precociousness and a sinister, almost sexually predatory quality. It’s a shame that his flourishing talents did not extend into adulthood – Stephens only performed in two more features before retiring from the screen to become an architect and teacher of meditation.

One of the finest ghost stories ever committed to celluloid, The Innocents is often compared to Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), another stellar example of prolonged tension tempered with minimal special effects and deep, troubling, emotionally mature subject matter. The two films also share a common theme of lead female protagonists utterly undone by their own hysterical reactions to the mysteries around them, where we are never quite sure if what they (and we, through their eyes) see is reality or fiction. The haunting visage of Miss Jessel out on the lake, the one that doesn’t disappear when Miss Giddens does a double take (the expected horror trope), lingers in the mind, staring forever into our souls as we wonder what, if anything, could have been done differently to avoid the shattering conclusion just witnessed.


New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray

Introduction by cultural historian Christopher Frayling

Audio commentary featuring Frayling

New interview with cinematographer John Bailey about director of photography Freddie Francis and the look of the film

New piece on the making of the film, featuring interviews from 2006 with Francis, editor Jim Clark, and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis

Theatrical Trailer

PLUS: An essay by critic Maitland McDonagh

The Innocents is available now on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and can be ordered HERE:


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