One of the first spoken lines in Jack Clayton’s film The Innocents is, “Do you have an imagination?”  This line, asked in interview by a half-bored London aristocrat, is answered with stammering pluck by the pretty interviewee, Miss Giddens: “Oh yes, I can answer that– yes.”  Miss Giddens (played by the marvelous, melodramatic Deborah Kerr), quickly and somewhat arbitrarily receives the position of governess she is applying for, and is whisked off to Bly, a sprawling, isolated country estate. There she is to care for the wealthy man’s niece and nephew, and to manage every aspect of their upbringing.  As it should turn out in Clayton’s visually flawless, relentlessly ominous film based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Miss Giddens has an incredible imagination.  The terrifying enigma of The Innocents is whether Miss Giddens’ imagination helps her to perceive horrors that others cannot confront, or to create horrors of devastating consequence.

Miles and Flora (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin) are Miss Giddens’ petite charges at Bly.  She is initially enchanted with both children, and charmed by their polite intelligence and sincerity.  Yet this maternal Eden dissolves quickly, as Miss Giddens begins to see things– at first perplexing and then chilling– around the estate.  A man, brooding and ashen, appears in the night.  A woman stands hip-deep in the estate’s pond, staring fixedly at the governess.  When Miss Giddens confronts the housekeeper about these silent strangers, the housekeeper hesitantly confesses that they seem from description like Quint and Miss Jessel, the previous groundsman and governess at Bly, now both dead.  While alive, Quint and Miss Jessel were fond of consummating a violent love affair in open rooms of the house.  With this information in mind, Miss Giddens takes note of the children’s activities with a paranoid eye.  Did the children witness Quint and Miss Jessel’s trysts?  Were they corrupted by what they saw?   Are they possessed by the ghosts of the two lovers?  What follows in the film is a labyrinth of mind games and frantically drawn conclusions, culminating in a haunting tragedy.

If The Innocents is not the first film to give children a twisted, demon-like presence, it is certainly the film that most skillfully, subtly, and sympathetically achieves this recurring trope.  Much of this is due to the film’s superb child acting.  Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin are the rare young actors who can communicate complete vulnerability while remaining precocious and composed to an unnerving, even slightly deranged degree.  It is a credit to both young talents that the ambiguity in the film is as impenetrable as it is– we feel protective of poor Miles and Flora against the seemingly hysterical Miss Giddens one minute, while feeling a grim unease toward the oddly sinister children the next.  When Miles recites a poem to the governess and housekeeper (containing such hypnotic lines as, “Enter my lord, come from your prison/Come from your grave, for the moon is arisen,”), his features, half-lit by the flickering candle he carries, seem so entranced that the disturbing question arises: Is this child possessed, or merely self-possessed?  The same is true of Flora, and the melancholic tune “O Willow Waly” she hums with absent-minded precision.  This hymn opens the film while the screen is pitch black.  As Flora sings it, the timbre of her voice is somewhere between that of an angel and a wailing ghost.

The visual aesthetic of The Innocents is exquisitely haunting and sinister.  The film was shot in CinemaScope, and as a result has a panoramic eeriness.  The unusually wide frame forces the eye to roam nervously over a shot’s contents, as if afraid that a pale, ghostly face will sneak up in the far left of the frame as the action occurs in the far right.  Faces prove to be the simple recurring visual motif of The Innocents.  The film’s luxurious dissolves let faces linger from one shot into the next, like apparitions who refuse to leave the living.  The mobile camera is also impeccable (cinematographer Freddie Francis won an Oscar for his work in the film) as it glides through chambers of the mansion, following the movements of Miss Giddens, never once forgoing elegant composition while emphasizing the unsettling depth and isolation of the space.

As a film, The Innocents navigates a hazy, deliciously ambiguous line between paranormal frightener and psychological thriller.  Are there ghosts haunting the manor at Bly, and furthermore possessing the children?  Or is Miss Giddens’ morbid imagination to blame?  There is never any clear suggestion in the film that the children see the peaked, leering poltergeists of Quint and Miss Jessel, even when Miss Giddens aggressively tries to make them confess so.  It is also never certain that the children in fact witnessed the relations between Quint and Miss Jessel.  Again, this is an assertion made by Miss Giddens.

If anything decidedly haunts The Innocents, it is a horror of the sexual.  Miss Giddens is a character conspicuously unattached to a man, and whose romantic and sexual past, if any, is never alluded to.  The isolation of the Bly manor, where only children and aging housekeepers move to and fro and dilapidating statues remain impassive, seems a ripe place for a sexually-repressed imagination to run wild.  It is important to remember that it is the handsome, malevolent face of a man, and the image of a  half-drowned woman, that torment Miss Giddens.  This waking nightmare, part fear and part lurid fascination, is inevitably extended to the children.  Miss Giddens kisses Miles twice in the film– once before his bedtime and once in the final, horrifically sad moments of the closing shot.  Both kisses are uncomfortably long and strange, heightened in perversity by the intense close-ups of the woman and boy’s interlocked profiles.  There is a distinct terror of others throughout The Innocents, but ultimately the greatest terror is of that which pulses deep inside the self.