Keeping One’s Distance: Ambiguity through Distance and Deep Focus in THE INNOCENTS
20 October 2013
Henry James’ novella, The Turn of the Screw (1898), was adapted for theatre in 1950 under the title The Innocents, but, just over ten years later, cinema, too, sets its eyes on this frightening tale of mystery and madness.
Set in Bly, England during the nineteenth century, The Innocents (1961), directed by Jack Clayton, tells of Miss Giddens’ (Deborah Kerr) assignment as governess of two orphaned children, neglected by their absentee uncle (Michael Redgrave). Miss Giddens, who has never held a job before this one, immediately falls in love with the country estate, and, of course, the children themselves, Flora (Pamela Franklin) and Miles (Martin Stephens). However, soon things begin to change. Isolated from the outside world, Miss Giddens begins to believe the children are possessed by the ghosts of two former employees, the children’s former governess, Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), and the estate’s valet, Quint (Peter Wyngarde). These two recently dead workers also happened to be lovers, and Miss Giddens fears the spirits possess the children in hopes of continuing their love in spite of death. Miss Giddens, herself, begins seeing these two ghosts, which only exacerbates her assumptions these spirits plague Flora and Miles, even though the children refuse to acknowledge the ghosts’ presence. Even the estate’s housekeep, Ms. Grose (Megs Jenkins), does not see the ghosts of whom Miss Giddens speaks. Miss Giddens believes if the children admit they see the ghosts, and are communicating with them, all possessions will be broken and the children will be freed. Her attempts to force Flora into speaking fail, so she dismisses Flora from the home, hoping the separation break any supernatural bind. Miss Giddens then focuses her attention on Miles. In the film’s climax, after a night of torture for all, Miss Giddens finally breaks what she perceives to be the possession of this boy; however, in the process, Miles dies.
As with the novella it derives from, the most interesting narrative aspect to The Innocents is, even in its conclusion, the film never confirms if the ghosts actually possess the children or if Miss Giddens is mad. On the surface, the film seems to encourage the assumption the children are possessed by these two reckless lovers. Take, for example, Miss Giddens’ first night at the country estate. As she sleeps, Flora sneaks to the window and begins humming a tune. Flora seems to be looking for someone out the window, and it is not until she glances to her right and smiles that, it seems, she locks eyes with person or things she searched for. Was it a ghost? Moreover, Flora continuously predicts Miles will return from school before the letter arrives confirming his return. It is as if someone told her of his return before anyone else knew. Did she know a ghostly secret? Plot details like this support this surface reading of the two children’s possession, but this is not the only slant one can read The Innocents on.
Several moments in the film support the opposite, which is Miss Giddens is mad, perhaps possessed herself, and the children are completely untouched by any spirits. For example, the only person to speak of the ghosts is Miss Giddens, and she is the only one to ever see them. Even when Flora peeks out the window in the aforementioned example, she seems to see something to her right, which causes her to smile, but the audience is never shown what she sees; nothing confirms Flora, or Miles, ever saw either ghost, but Miss Giddens sees both, several times. Moreover, Miss Giddens only gets a close look at Quint, the male ghost, after she sees his picture in the attic. Only after she sees a concrete image, the picture, does the ghost take shape for Miss Giddens, suggesting, possibly, there is no ghost, only a madwoman’s imagination, an imagination she claims to have when she is interviewed for the position by the children’s uncle in the film’s opening scene. Therefore, even though the film’s surface, and marketing, highlight it is a about the ghostly possession of these two small children, a degree of ambiguity is maintained, and this ghost story may not, in fact, be about the children at all.
And, here is where Jack Clayton’s cinematic decisions become significant. To highlight the film’s ambiguity, as opposed to allowing this to so easily become a film about children’s possession, Clayton makes intentional cinematic choices to suggest Miss Giddens may be an unreliable witness/narrator, and perhaps a madwoman, different from the rest.
The first, and most common of these choices, is actors are rarely captured in the same frame. Put another way, Clayton cuts his shots, and, occasionally, swings his camera from actor to actor, in order to create a separation of space between the characters. Here, space has a very literally meaning; space is closeness. Miss Giddens is not close with Ms. Grose, Flora, and Miles, or the ghosts, for that matter. She is often isolated in her own frame, kept at a distance from the others.
Moreover, on the few occasions where actors do exist within the same frame, they are, most often, psychically separated by a great distance. For example, the first time Miss Giddens meets Lucy the two stand at opposite banks of a stream. Because of the water, they are separated by distance: Flora at the far right of the frame and Miss Giddens at the far left. This exact framing is replicated in the film’s conclusion when Miles stands to the right of the drawing room and Miss Giddens to the left, separated by a significant amount of space. Thus, even when Clayton decides to frame both characters in one shot, he emphasizes distance between these characters with equal precision as when he does not allow them to share a frame.
Lastly, Clayton uses deep focus, at times, another play in distance. With deep focus, Clayton can keep everything in any given frame in focus, even when objects or actors are at a great distance from one another. For example, returning to Flora’s peek out the window on Miss Giddens’ first night, as Flora gazed out, humming, the camera also captures Miss Giddens, at another side of the room, sleeping in her bed. Keeping both characters in focus in the same shot requires deep focusing, and the effect still highlights the distance between these two characters. Literally, Flora and Miss Giddens have their backs to one another, one awake and one asleep. Although they are in the same shot, they could not be more distant and separate from each other.
Clayton’s use of cutting shots to isolate characters in their respective frame, as well as, occasionally including characters inside the same frame, at a distance, and sometimes at such a distance deep focus is required, helps the director maintain the narrative’s ambiguity. These cinematic decisions establish fragmentation: characters are not unified, characters are not seeing things the same way, and characters are not close.
These cinematic decisions slightly encourage a reading that Miss Giddens’ is, in fact, mad. Miss Giddens is the main character and in all of the scenes in the film; no other character is. Therefore, Miss Giddens is being separated, kept at a distance, from others, which draws attention to her as standing out from the rest, perhaps for being unbalanced. However, if these cinematic decisions draw attention to Miss Giddens as mad that only counters the narrative surface reading that they children are possessed. Therefore, Clayton makes specific cinematic decisions to create and maintain the ambiguity necessary to keep the audience guessing about who is really afflicted by ghosts in The Innocents.