Don’t be fooled by all the gothic thriller trickery of it, this is a film about sex, although you may not notice it at first. To be more precise, it’s about the consequences of either repressing or following your urges.
Based on Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”, the film follows the daughter of a vicar, Miss Giddens (Kerr), who is offered a position as governess of two children in an isolated country house. She takes the job half in love with an employer that she isn’t supposed to see again, someone who has a reputation as a charmer. Once in the house she becomes first disturbed and then obsessed with her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and her lover Quint. Both are now dead, and since they both had such strong influence over the children, she comes to believe that they are possessing them.
Kerr’s character is clearly someone whose prospects of marrying are nil, probably like those of her predecessor. Completely frustrated – and to be sure of that just look at her childish enthusiasm at the interview or at the mention of her employer – she becomes fascinated by the discoveries she makes about the lustful, obsessive and ultimately tragic sexual relation between the former governess and Quint. Here lies the wonderfulness of the film – is she imagining it, or is it actually happening? We are never given a clear answer (thankfully!). Her reactions are excessive, and go against her, but the other character’s reactions are vague enough to give us some reason to believe that it may not be her just imagination.
At the core is the issue of Victorian morals where all sex outside marriage and without the purpose of procreation is wrong. Me has a feeling that Henry James didn’t really agree with that. On the surface, the upright, repressed, virginal Miss Giddens seems to be what the children need as an example, but her actions and reactions to events undermine this, despite the fact that you know her heart is in the right place. On the other hand, while not be the best role models, the lustful, “sinning” Miss Jessel and Quint appear to be more satisfying parental figures, and haven’t harmed the children at all. I go as far as suggest that the evidence even suggests otherwise. Furthermore, Kerr’s need to “do good” to others, whether or not they want it, is also clearly under fire, as the audience perhaps goes with the housekeeper’s view that sometimes is worse to wake up a child from a dream.
Enhancing all this is the joint effect of sound, music, décor editing and cinematography. And this is where you get the more atmospheric elements, where these transgressions take more obvious gothic elements. The light as Deborah Kerr arrives at the house contrasting with the darkness of the final shots; that beautiful house that suddenly turns into a nightmare of secrets and the music that tells as much as the actors’ faces. Most of all I love the fact that is a black and white cinemascope film.
I think it was no accident that Deborah Kerr, an actress who had a gift for repressing (e.g. “Separate Tables”, “Black Narcissus”) or exposing sexual urges (e.g. “Tea and Sympathy” and rather more obviously, “From Here to Eternity”) according to the need of her part. She excels in the role, and I have stated here, this is one of my favourite performances of hers. I really can’t think of any other actress who could carry the film so well.
I don’t think either children were that good, but I think Martin Stephens who plays Miles, the young boy, needs a mention under trivia: he seems to have cornered the polite scary kid really well, since in the previous year he was in “The Village of the Damned”.