Thursday 13 March 2014

The Innocents

I've mentioned it a few times over the years, but my favourite cinema in Oxford (actually, in the world, based on my limited experience) is the Ultimate Picture Palace on Cowley Road.  I happen to live about 10-15 minutes walk from it, which is very handy, and even closer is my friend Andrea (who writes the surplus spinster blog).  We set up a two person film club a year or so ago, and have a great time meeting up once a fortnight to watch a DVD and give marks out of ten.

Last Monday we varied the theme a little by having a film club outing to the Ultimate Picture Palace.  As well as showing slightly artier films slightly after the other cinemas in Oxford, the UPP (wonderfully) show classic films, and do series devoted to certain directors/actors/countries/themes etc. And so we went to see Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961).

It wasn't until I got there that I discovered that The Innocents is an adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which I read a few years ago and didn't love.  On the one hand, that did mean that I already knew everything that would happen in the film (at least to the extent that anybody can know what happens!), but on the other hand that meant I could sit back and enjoy seeing how they did it...

First things first, nobody is going to buy forty-year-old Deborah Kerr as a young governess - but she is certainly a pretty one.  She is not so pretty as the house, though - Sheffield Park in Sussex - which is such a brilliant setting for the story.  The grounds are expansive and beautiful, with the requisite lake, and the house itself is both lovely and intimidating to look at.  I don't know how many of the interior rooms were actually on location, but the corridors and staircases are perfectly haunting - yet with a light, bright sitting room at the beginning of the film, filled with flowers.  The move from bright cheerfulness to fear and darkness is done extremely well, presumably courtesy of the director, Jack Clayton.

Here I am, assuming you know what happens in The Turn of the Screw.  Briefly, in case you don't, a young governess (Miss Giddens in the film - nameless in the book?) goes to look after a young girl (Flora) at the country estate of her uncle - who does not live there, and does not wish to be contacted under any circumstances.  All seems to be well, until Flora's brother Miles is expelled and sent to join them... but doesn't want to talk about why.  As the children start to display unusual behaviour, Miss Giddens learns more about the governess who used to be there, and the cruel man she had a relationship with - both of whom are dead - but she begins to believe they aren't wholly gone...

The Turn of the Screw is a classic text for open-interpretation - you finish not knowing whether the governess is delusional, or the children are being possessed by ghosts.  I also finished it not having a clue what was going on, because Henry James is incapable of writing a comprehensible sentence.  But it was interesting to see how a film could convey this sort of ambiguity...

Very well, it turns out.  Through lighting, music, focus, and use of perspective, The Innocents makes the viewer feel Miss Giddens' paranoia and fear - how this is a 12A rating beats me, but I am a huge coward - without giving any concrete evidence one way or the other.  And huge credit has got to go to Deborah Kerr.  It's a very good cast - the children (including Pamela Franklin in her first role) are exceptional - but Deborah Kerr, unsurprisingly, has to take the crown.  It's a psychologically fascinating performance, and certainly adds to the terror of the whole thing - but a hundred miles away from Hammer Horror territory.

All in all, another big success for the Ultimate Picture Palace - AND you can buy a cup of tea to drink while watching the film.  My next trip there will be on 30 March to see a 1930s musical called 42nd Street, which should be fun.  If you're ever in Oxford when they're showing a classic film, make sure you get there.


  1. Just watched a clip on YouTube - she loves a crinoline does our Debs!


  2. The Innocents is the first film I saw that truly gave me scary nightmares - it was on the telly one afternoon - I was a teenager and on my own ... I'd previously read The Midwich Cuckoos and was a bit over-sensitive to creepy children - but even in plain daylight, the film got to me!

  3. Oh, do have fun with 42nd Street. It's the source of every backstage Broadway musical cliche that ever was. ("You're going out there an unknown, but you'll come back a star.")

  4. Also, thanks for the link the Andrea's blog. Another one to add to my list

  5. Also worth noting that Truman Capote was one of the screenwriters on this film.

  6. Great review Simon, also the UPP sounds like a good place to watch a film. :)


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