Skip to main content

Review: The Innocents (1961)




Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has sparked disputes over years with largely two sides of critics endeavouring to constitute a tenable interpretation of this canonic ghost story. Edmund Wilson, who had recanted his views incessantly, ultimately settled on the proposition that the ghosts in the story are non-existent and merely conjured up by the hyperimaginative, delusional governess. Countering that line of thought is Brad Leithauser, who chooses not to dismiss the probability of supernatural occurrences, but also considers the process of arriving at a definitive conclusion especially problematic when taken into account that the story is recalled by a possibly deranged mind.

But what is James’s stance on this? Inkling can be deduced from the preface to his last ghost story, “The Jolly Corner,” according to which the author expresses his preference for ghosts that are extensions of everyday reality: “… the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.”

Jack Clayton’s 1961 film adaptation, The Innocents, attests to James’s ideal by meshing the strange and sinister with the normal and easy. Such is, in my opinion, the touchstone of great horror films that effortlessly craft an eerie atmosphere by wheedling the audiences first into that region of seeming familiarity. The effect is stunning if this kind of confidence trick is utilised with the right materials and at the precise moments.

The lighting of the film is especially instrumental in meddling with our perceptions of the strange and the normal. Excessive radiance invades many scenes, insofar as the blazing sun of a warm summer day, or the pearl-like pallor of the children’s faces inspires in us even greater fear than, say, the gloom that encompasses the grand gothic mansion, or the disgruntled, spectral face that materialise from the engulfing darkness. A new source of horror is thus introduced, the sort that resembles that when one’s equivocal conscience is exposed under the light of day, for all to see. A sense of unease and disquietude that resorts to night and darkness as the surest refuge and concealment, since day and light invariably entail more dangers in store.

Quite relentlessly the film prompts reassessing the values of many common virtues. Amongst them is innocence. How many times has one questioned if children’s innocence is only a fragile mask, concealing that knowing precocity that borders on inconceivable wickedness? The governess convinces herself so and attributes the children’s adult-like wiles to the possession of the unmitigated spirits. Readers of James’s classic may posit readily that all is only a projection of the governess’s fear regarding her own sexually repressed mores. The film, however, discounts somewhat such reasoning: two of the most controversial scenes have the boy kiss the governess on the lips with lingering passion, and the girl watch a spider devouring a butterfly with unfeigned nonchalance. Innocence retains only a nominal value.

Both the book and the film close with still many questions unsolved. The major one being: are there ghosts or are there not? It shouldn’t be any wonder if James intended The Turn of the Screw to be a veritable horror story, being himself consumed with the pleasure of telling throughout his life, but such linear reading is complicated by the use of an unreliable narrator. And what makes a narrator unreliable if not his possible skill of deception, his ebullient storytelling that is on the strength of his febrile imagination? Imagination is the fundamental element that runs through The Innocents. At the opening sequence, the twitchy governess, during her interview with the children’s uncle, starts when asked if she has an imagination. In reflection, what an odd question it is when in a job interview!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Honore Daumier

“If you shut up truth and bury it under ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”- Émile Zola
Exited Honoré Victorin Daumier, 10 February 1879, in an impoverishment that many of his contemporaries, especially his foes, would have thought was his long overdue retribution- the painter was blind, heavily in debt, and later relegated to a pauper’s grave. His friends, upon visiting his resting place, would, I imagine, see it a chance to admonish their children: “Now that’s a lesson for you cheeky devils whose tongues rattle off things that should better stay unspoken.” But Daumier devoted his life in revealing those “unspoken things.” His lithography ink proved sharper than most writers’ pens. He vented his rage and stigmatised others’ infamy in his satirical and, oftentimes, side-splitting cartoons. The tone was relentlessly acerbic but only because Daumier was exposing truths that, in the time…

Review: Late Spring (1949)

As a storyteller, Yasujiro Ozu insists on an implausibly objective stance that refrains from direct commentary or criticism; his camera customarily assumes the role of a detached observer, to whom the characters in the film, staring or talking straight to the camera, occasionally address, with an intimacy akin to that between a host and his guest, a closeness that is underpinned by a mutual recognition of the psychological distance that separates the two. The audience, whose perspective, in this case, conflates the camera’s (the director’s), an invisible character’s in the film (to whom the other characters address) and their own, is thus situated amidst this spatial complexity which, as a rule, every work of art necessarily creates.
In Late Spring (1948), the camera serves in part as an underlying comment to the story, which is noted by its economy of details. A prolonged shot of a departing train, on which the father and daughter travel to the city for a one-day excursion, prefigures…

Review: Breathless (1960)

Jean Luc Godard’s first feature feels oddly like a swansong: in many respects the film seems a self-mockery of what it ostensibly celebrates – the new, the bold, the reckless; the 60s zeitgeist that resurrects the anguished ghosts of the 1920s, who, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, grow up to “find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.” For the children of the ‘60s, their wars are of a kind in which the opponents constantly change roles: sometimes they are the unmerciful authorities bent on making miserable lives out of their inferiors; in other times they are the society at large, weeding out in its insidious and devious way the errant law-breakers. They all seem to be donning the same masks, through which the warriors recognise themselves.
This fight with one’s inner demon necessarily evokes concerns of mortality and death - timeless concerns that acquire an added pungency in the 1960s: would a dangerous, unheeding spell of hedonism finally defy life’s incontrove…