One of the most powerful aspects of HENRY JAMES’s novella THE TURN OF THE SCREW is its elusive, hard to pin down nature. The story itself behaves in a ghostly manor, flittering and floating in and out of focus while cornering the reader into the position of questioning the validity of all they encounter. JACK CLAYTON’s TRUMAN CAPOTE-penned, FREDDIE FRANCIS (THE ELEPHANT MAN)-lensed cinematic adaptation has a similar modus operandi (although it does throw us an extra bone of solid information by giving our protagonist, at last, a name.) The big question seems to be whether nervous governess Miss Giddens (DEBORAH KERR) is, in actuality, encountering the supernatural or whether she is, in fact, insane. Are the apparitions real or only in her head? After a recent watch I have come to the conclusion that Giddens is bat shit bonkers regardless of whether the “abominations” are real or not.
Having zero experience in childcare, Miss Giddens is hired to take care of two neglected orphans by their emotionally stunted playboy uncle. He gives her complete control of their well being provided he doesn’t have to hear about it and she swoons and coos like a Victorian TWILIGHT fan at his glacial unavailability. He asks her if she has an imagination and she replies with the understatement of the century “Yes.” I don’t mean to be too hard on Giddens, I know she means well, but once you get to know her you realize that her masochistic longing to be lost in the shadow of something larger than herself has catastrophic results. Really, if the children left under your charge have only a fifty percent survival rate, you should expect a certain amount of criticism.
The fact that Gidden’s loose screws need a few extra turns is evident from the start. Taking her humble pastor’s daughter background into account, Gidden’s overwhelmed reaction to the wondrous country estate she is to oversee is understandable. What’s less comprehensible is her exaggerated enchantment with not only her employer but his niece and nephew. If she’s to be an authority figure she’s off on the wrong foot, routinely claiming to be swayed this way and that by the charms of others. It sets up a precedent that weaves through the entire tale; that Giddens herself is unaccountable for her actions. Her dealings with young Flora (PAMELA FRANKLIN) seem, at first, natural enough but when Flora’s sibling Miles is expelled from school for vague reasons her bearings begin to wobble. This is when her previously mentioned “imagination” gets revved up and Gidden’s imagination has the tendency to conjure up the worst possible scenario whenever it is given space to do so.
By her own account Giddens was raised under close scrutiny in a space too small for secrets. Suddenly the world is open to her and her mind can travel to wherever it chooses. She states that children need, “someone to belong to them and to whom they belong” but like many a neurotic the wants and desires that she projects upon others are, in reality, her own. Gidden’s unwarranted enthrallment to the children’s uncle flares clear as day. A fire is sparked but it needs to be fed to burn. Her feelings, like clipped flowers, require a vase. While playing hide and seek with the children, Giddens comes across an old photo of a striking dark eyed man. She has found the vessel for her desires, desires that scare the bejeezus out of her. For perhaps the first time in her life Giddens is in a position of power and her longings undermine her newfound sense of control. Every bonehead move she makes from here on out is a misplaced attempt to regain equilibrium and command. The witch-hunt has begun, there are dark forces about and she alone can sense them. She becomes the personification of the adage that when you point a finger at someone else you have four fingers pointing back at yourself.
As it was then and as it ever will be, the best method of crafting an impenetrable cloak of immunity is to state that your actions are “for the children.” Giddens hysteria is allowed to breed unchecked once her righteous motives are declared. She grills the housekeeper Mrs. Grose for any morsel of deviance she can unearth. Peter Quint, the man in the photo and Miss Jessel the former governess (who was not as pretty as Giddens by the way) had an illicit affair before they both kicked the bucket. We are told that Quint (not unlike the children’s uncle) had a mesmerizing power that made resistance to his will futile. Their love was a “sickness” and who knows the horrors that the two innocent children witnessed. Giddons and Grose’s exchange plays out like an over the clothesline gossip exchange between BEWITCHED’s Mrs. Kravitz and THE SIMPSONS’ Helen Lovejoy. Giddens can barely hide her lady boner under her hoop skirt of scandalized indignation.
To me, Miss Giddens shows her hand clearly and I’m not buying her, “For the children” catchall excuse in the slightest. She’s not concerned that the children may have been traumatized. She doesn’t care that they are in a state of mourning. It doesn’t even register that the children have made no complaint of ill treatment. Her choice of wording, that the children have been “contaminated” is such a red flag, it’s a wonder she’s not trampled by a wayward bull. She seems more concerned that the children have a wanton knowledge that she is not privy to and her efforts to make them confess that supposed knowledge is unforgivable. The way she tries to force Flora into saying that she sees the ghost of Miss Jessell, someone whom Flora was close to and who died within the past year, resembles the type of forced coercion you might find in a police interrogation. When Mrs. Grose admits that she didn’t see the phantom either, she is promptly accused of betrayal. Giddens eventually puts her foot down. It is made clear that she is in charge of the house and by some spurious extension, in charge of what everybody sees or does not see.
Again, whether the ghosts are real or unreal, is to me, beside the point. It’s Miss Giddens reaction to what she perceives which should be scrutinized. I don’t blame her for being unnerved by the uncanny but her sightings of these entities, even if accepted as authentic, are generally neutral. No real threat is ever made and she pulls her assumptions about possession and the children’s complicity right out of the air. Even more telling is her magical solution to her imagined crisis, everyone must simply admit that she is right and it will all go away. People tell you who they are and Giddens is never in deeper focus then when she states “My father taught me to love people and help them. Help them even if they refuse my help and even if it hurts them sometimes.”
Giddens does indeed hurt Miles and she hurts Flora as well, that is what tends to happen when someone unable to face their own demons, projects them onto somebody else. Conspiracy and possession theories aside, Giddens does exhibit a particular fear of Miles. Their intimacy level is disturbing overall but when things come to a head he calls her on the fact that she does not see him as “normal.” It’s easy for the viewer to read Miles’ sophistication as creepy but his adult demeanor carries an extra worry for Miss Giddens. Before his light is snuffed out he exposes Giddens’ worst fret of all, that she’s fooled no one and that her pleads for compliance reveal her fear that she is going mad.
As Giddens sees or imagines Quint’s laughing visage nodding in approval, Miles sends the point home calling her a hussy and a dirty-minded hag. She rationalizes it’s the voice of Quint but perhaps it’s merely the up ‘til then AWOL voice of reason. That may sound harsh, and I’m not unmoved by Giddens’ momentary flash of understanding of the horror she herself has caused but the fact remains that she had many chances to rethink her route and ignored them. I think her real fear of Miles may have come from the idea that he, unlike the impressionable and uneducated Mrs. Grose and his younger sister, could see right through her. Maybe Miss Giddens is easily swayed and charmed but Miles is another story.
The final question may be why does Giddons when offered a newfound freedom cower at the foot of her own desires? Is her strict religious background to blame? Check out her expression when Flora relates her understanding that a ghost is one that God has judged to be “bad” and has thus been “left behind” and then get back to me.
Please don’t misinterpret my condemnation of Giddens as a critique of the film. It’s a truly brilliant piece of work and as far as ghost stories go it’s only peer is ROBERT WISE’s THE HAUNTING which it predates. If you want to wait for a superior take on the HENRY JAMES story prepare to wait forever. Besides being a visual stunner, its use of sound is absolutely extraordinary and remains influential to this day (THE INNOCENTS is even sampled in the cursed tape from 2002’s THE RING.)
Director CLAYTON deserves big ups for not pushing too strongly one way or the other and allowing the viewer to choose their own path and decipher the images however they choose. The two child actors, MARTIN STEPHENS (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED) and PAMELA FRANKLIN (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE) give unforgettable performances and DEBORAH KERR as Giddens has an intense sincerity that convinces you to the core. KERR is so good that I believed her and Miss Giddens the first dozen or so times I saw THE INNOCENTS. I guess being bombarded by hysterical propaganda and fear mongering on television all these years has had its benefits. Somewhere along the line I’ve learned to worry less about the steely glint in the theoretical Quint’s eye and worry more about the fanatical frenzy in the eyes of the very real Miss Giddens.