Do the works of Henry James count as British literature? I mean, he spent virtually all of his writing career in London, set a lot of his works (including Turn of the Screw, which this film is based on) in England, but he’s originally from New York, and I’ve read some of his works in American Lit class. Yes, this is the third review in a row I’ve started with the question of “Does this count as a British film?” I swear on all the half-dozen or so copies of the Collected Works of Shakespeare I have lying around the house, I did not plan this trend. Sometimes, I plan on doing Never Let Me Go, but life throws me a new Blu-Ray of Don’t Look Now and sometimes the bargain DVD section of my local Half Price Books throws me copies of The Innocents and Master and Commander for a dollar apiece.
But, in the end, given that the film is set in Britain and every major creative force behind this film, besides original author Henry James, script doctor Truman Capote, and composer Georges Auric is from Britain (or at least an area that was controlled by Britain at the time), this is a British film.
The plot of the film is the same as the original short story: a governess (played by Deborah Kerr, in the second-to-last great performance in her exemplary career) is assigned to an English country house and is left alone with a military man’s servants and kids. Their son, Miles, is expelled from his boarding school under mysterious circumstances, and exhibits some increasingly strange behaviour. Around the same time, she hears mysterious voices and sees strange figures nobody else can see, who turn out to be identical to two former employees who died recently, causing her to wonder if the home is haunted. Are the ghosts real? Is the governess going mad? Nobody knows, possibly not even Henry James himself, and that’s the beauty of it.
While the film’s trailer may be a bit hyperbolic about how The Innocents is the first ghost story made for adults, it may be one of the first horror films (at least in British film history, anyway) to create the scares not through typical shocks and scares (apparently a reaction against the gory Hammer Horror films which had reached their peak around this time), but through the direction, the atomosphere (created by cinematographer Freddie Francis), and the sound design. One can see an example of this in this scene, where Deborah Kerr investigates strange noises in the middle of the night:
Very little is actually happening in this scene, but that doesn’t stop it from being incredibly creepy. Deborah Kerr’s performance really carries the scene, and it’s so great that one almost forgets that she’s far too old to be a governess on her first assignment. So many modern horror filmmakers who rely on gratuitous gore and jump scares could learn from The Innocents, using very little conventional scares, at least until the end:
But, of course, the atmosphere doesn’t even begin to explain why the film is great. In addition to being adapted from Henry James’ most popular work (at least in the modern day), it was adapted from William Archibald’s 1950 play based on the novella also known as The Innocents. And, of course, (and the thing that really drew me into it) Truman Capote did a lot of modifications to the script [according to Christopher Frayling, 90% of the script comes from him], including several scenes emphasizing both the son Miles’ budding sexuality (including a scene involving a passionate kiss between the governess and Miles, one seen as being so disturbing at the time that it caused the film to get an X rating from the BBFC; it has since been downgraded to a 12) and a Gothic sensibility to the Bly estate, two gifts from the master of the second generation of Southern Gothic to this film. Granted, Jack Clayton did water Capote’s vision down a bit, but it seems he wound up striking a good balance.
In the end, there are so many great things about the movie, I simply can’t talk about them all. The closest thing to a flaw is the music score, done by George Auric (of French music collective Les Six). While the score is excellent, and one of the earliest examples of a film with a score with electronic elements (two years before The Birds), with a theme song (“Willow Waly”) that was not only reused in last year’s trailer for The Woman in Black 2, it was also covered by the Kingston Trio, my own personal favourite exponents of the early 1960s folk boom:
I actually don’t have a problem with the score itself, but I do think that there was a missed opportunity here: Seven years prior to the film’s release, Benjamin Britten’s wrote his own operatic adaptation of Turn of The Screw, and I can’t help but wonder what Britten would have done with the chance to do the film’s score.
Then again, the 12-tone serialism of the opera might have less mainstream appeal than “Willow Waly” did. Besides, around this time, Britten was writing War Requiem, and if doing this would have kept him away from that, it’s probably for the best.