The Innocents Jack Clayton (UK 1961) Deborah Kerr; Michael Redgrave
writing credits: John Mortimer, William Archibold, Truman Capote
viewed Tyneside Cinema 5 Jan 2014; ticket: £6:95
There is a moment at the height of Miss Giddens' epic contest with Miles where she is seen in full 'battle regalia' her luxuriant hair let down like a warrior. Until this point her hair, neatly pinned up has been a symbolic token of her reason and self control. As her rolling locks cascade over her shoulders we see for the first something of her primal energy. In the movies, hair cuts tell their own stories about the characters, suggesting in the lines and contours of the hair something about the landscape of personality underneath. In this letting go moment it felt like Miss Giddens had arrived at an epithany, a point where she recognised that to 'win' she would have to call up from within herself unfamiliar latent forces. A 'hair-down' shot in which Clayton would start to release something of his own invention into the scenario. A moment of truth which would transform the staid dull neuroticism of Deborah Kerr's playing into something energised. The Innocents would be transformed into a film inspired by not inhibited by, Henry James' magnificent short story: The Turn of the Screw.
But this moment remains simply that, a brief 'hair encounter'. After which the movie returns to the mechanics of its laboured plodding Gothic plot. A telling of the plot that significantly diverges from the original telling of the story in as much as where James teases and opts for a phenomenological ambiguity, Clayton plays out a literalistic interpretation. Of course every film finds its own path through its material to its own form. Clayton in opting for development of specific plot mechanics over character development, leaves his film with an empty centre.
The Innocents pivots on the performance of the role of Governess Miss Giddens. She is the soul of the work and Henry James wrote his novella in the form of a letter written by the her. This letter structures the work as a point of view: a seeing and recounting of the events. This is one of things James explored: how seeing informs understanding. However in the Innocents film version, we don't see things from her point of view. Sometimes we do but mostly we get a camera taking up different narrative roles dominated by overdetermined affect images that Clayton asks Deboral Kerr as governess to give. The role of governess is defined by stereotypical faciality of the melodramatic horror genre characterised by the lowering of the jaw, the stretching of the skin over cheek bones, the widening of eyes. Locked into her rigid characterisation Kerr, directed by Clayton is unable to suggest the chaotic mental states that characterise perception and judgement in unstable psychic relationships. And so, like a fire, without sufficient psychic energy to consume, the film slowly dies down and goes out. There are a couple of moments with both Miles and Flora that kindle, but in the end instead of a focus of intent, there are just images edited and manipulated to impose the occasional shock on the audience.
The other weakness of the Innocents is the failure of Jack Clayton to create a world within which to locate his action. The action mostly takes place in a large country house called Bly. For the film to work the location should take on some numinous identity of its own. The setting should emanate a sense of presence and immanence in relation to the events that it secretes. But Clayton doesn't develop the house as anything more than a backdrop to the action. Looking at the garden and the house, the props suggest a polymorphous raiding of the studio's prop cupboard. None of the items, the statues the pictures the drapes have any resonance. The best shots are the over the shoulder tracking shots down the corridor (which might have influenced Kubrick's Shining) and the use of the windows as mirror reflectors of faces. But neither of these more effective shots are intrinsic to the fabric of the setting, they could be part of any large house.Whereas David Lean, in films such as Great Expectations Lawrence and Brief Encounter, always anchored his films within the mechanisms inherent in created and imagined worlds, so that the characters and plots were embedded in in the very fabric of his settings. In his film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, Jack Clayton needed to better understand that the content and features of his setting were central to his artistic vision.