Miss Giddens traverses the nebulous boundary between imagination and logic: Madness is the soft whisper at the edge of reason.
As the film begins, a child’s lilting and playful tune haunts an ominous black screen. Gradually, hands clasped in prayer are revealed to be Miss Giddens’ as she utters a tearful plea: “I only want to help the children, not destroy them”. It’s this dichotomy between light and darkness, good deeds and destruction, which prepares the audience for the trauma to follow. A psychologically fragile governess is given absolute control over two precocious children by their estranged Uncle; a man who can spare little time for their well-being and comfort. The children are orphans though their parent’s death is never explained: it’s another dead-end in this multicursal maze. Miss Giddens also learns that the previous governess died and that she must never mention her to the children, especially the impressionable Flora. She accepts the post and travels to Bly House, the Uncle’s beautiful country estate that is the children’s sanctuary.
Almost immediately, a serene and mysterious echo wafts upon the mid-afternoon breeze beckoning Flora. The little girl is first seen as a murky reflection in the lake, a masterful display of foreshadowing the connection to Miss Jessel, before the camera pans to Flora’s cherubic smile. Her brother Miles is away at school but there seems to be some telepathic connection between them: she knows he is coming home. Miles does come home the next day because he was expelled from school and his deceitfully charming personality is exposed, his infectious temperament invigorated. The children act as tiny adults with kind manners and an intellectual capacity that belies their years. But they exude a nefariously manipulative and disingenuous aroma.
As Miss Giddens learns more about the suicide of Miss Jessel, the previous governess, and the death of Miss Jessel’s lover Quint, she begins to have strange experiences: a nefarious visage in the darkness, a towering man, a woman passing in a lonely corridor, the ghostly lady of the lake, and disembodied voices calling the children’s names. There is purpose behind every sound and shadow: a window slamming closed, a child’s game of hide and seek, or a bug crawling from the mouth of a statue all have ominous undertones. Though never overtly alleged, Miles is mysteriously implicated in Quint’s death. Herein lies the crux of the drama: is Miss Giddens irrational or is there some supernatural element that is harming the children? She believes that the spirits of Miss Jessel and Quint have possessed the children and she must exercise them, cut out this malignance. Indeed, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
The cinematography is exceptional with Freddie Francis’ deep focus photography that brings every background detail to life, expanding the illusory world of Bly House far beyond two dimensions: it adds an otherworldly quality to the film. Truman Capote fleshed out the narrative and defined the repressed sexuality, in both Miles and the governess, which leads to a rather uncomfortable and askew moment. THE INNOCENTS does not judge the characters and lead us to any absolute understanding: the verdict is in the hands of the audience to decide guilt…or innocence.
Final Grade: (A)