Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Innocents - Jack Clayton (1961)


‘Magical’ is highest accolade. Few films deserve it as much as Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Based on Truman Capote & William Archibald's adapted screenplay of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screwthis late example of the classical era of film, majestically and somewhat incongruously mounted in the new technology of panoramic cinemascope, breaths the air of ageless youth. From its first frames to its hysteric denouement a cadence of andantic assurredness conveys us through the dream-like labyrinth of English Gothic psycho-drama. Yet at it's core Clayton's film is less about ghosts than the seduction of age by innocence. Albeit an innocence strangely knowing, and age unmarked by time's passage.

Megs Jenkins (Mrs. Grose) makes an effective and resonant foil for Deborah Kerr (Miss Giddens), whose acting seems perfectly calibrated for the intimate medium of film. This is important considering she is the focal point of every scene and we experience the mansion and its denizens through her perspective. 

The easy confidence of the exchanges between Miss Giddens, cheeky Master Miles (Martin Stephens) and gracious Flora (Pamela Franklin) renders the presence of the absent--this is a ghosting tale, after all--genuinely disturbing. The spectral dimension never feels extraneous, yet for all its eeriness it amounts to something like a surplus of significance next to the genteel sophistication of the main characters'  rapport. Their interactions account in large part for the enduring freshness and interest of Clayton's film. 

In the context of 21st Century manners, the mores of the Victorian mind-set, which British cinema has always been most adept at distilling, seem as other-worldly as the spirits haunting the Essex country estate--a form of historical science-fiction that grows more intriguingly 'other' with every viewing. 

Beside Freddie Francis’s stunning black and white cinematography and the bizarrely resonant performances, the audio dimension of The Innocents especially stands outIt's so distinctive one can imagine it completely absorbing a blind person's attention. The most complete films can hold their own as radio plays. Georges Auric’s atmospheric scoring, the lilt of the English dialogue, the little repeating melody O Willow Waly, and the echo effects of the mansion heighten the sense of irreality. Auditory augmentation is the special province of the horror genre; no other so relies upon and exploits the tonal dimension to unveil the essential mysteriousness of existence. 

Mile's insouciant grown-up teasing and provocatively knowing glances are both  sweet and strangely off-putting--a simultaneity of discordant emotions that exemplifies the ambivalence characteristic of consummate dramatic art. All genuinely intriguing embodiments of behavior evince this flickering of incommensurable valences. No wonder Miss Giddens suspects her charges are privy to the realm of departed spirits--the former care-takers Quint and Miss Jessel. She seems almost aroused by the force stirring within them. Miles's teasing evokes the erotic attachment of mothers and sons--in equal parts dimly intuited and fearfully sensed stirrings. Both point to the primordial, unknowable, and uncontrollable.

Reciting his poem (“What shall I sing to my lord from my window...”) while holding a candle and wearing a crown at an impromptu evening of entertainment, Miles enchants Miss Giddens to the point of stupefaction. I myself was dumbstruck by his precociously earnest display of lyrical possession. Poems themselves, of course, claim to be, among other things, re-presencings of the absent. Here a recitation serves as the vehicle of a haunting as bewitching as any ghost's filtering-through the night.
It's impossible to feel oneself outside of this film and its characters at any point, thanks to the enveloping effect of the cinematography and the intimacy of the acting, but in this sequence we seem to enter the inner sanctum of sorcery itself. Miles' will-to-beguile culminates in his own version of revelation, one proclaiming that the spirit realm magic--and art--rule, is realest of the real. His trance-like invocation of the supernatural--the presence of what is absent, viz, his "lord"--is every poet-sorcerer's dream of re-presentation fulfilled

With his somnambulist recitation Miles conjures the banished patriarchal order into the context of his governess and maid's gynocratic governance. Beguiled by his uncanny eloquence and other-worldly demeanor, Miss Giddens momentarily submits to the confounding force channeling itself through him before reflexively and defensively recoiling in disbelief. The triumph of his grown-up authority finally confirms her suspicion that all cannot be right with Miles, while showing up the limits of her own grip on things. The scene represents her seduction, and by extension, the seduction of all mothers by their sons. No other scene in cinema approximates to the power with which Clayton accomplishes this conquest. Uncoincidentally it takes place in a film in which the disembodied channel themselves through their unwitting present day hosts.  

What makes Clayton's film so formally satisfying is the objectivity of his framing and his refusal to inject sensationalism via camera-movement or obtuse perspectives (though there are some breathtaking vertical shots). In other words, his classicism. Yet while his film-aesthetic is classically balanced, the film's thematic blossoms into a feverish romanticism to end on a note of rhapsodic transport.

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