Crossing the Line

         In Henry James’s 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, a key question constantly pounded at the audience’s minds; did the ghosts truly exist or not? This was such a main focus throughout the book that it took away from my acknowledgment of any other very evident and exceedingly important themes or motifs. One of these overlooked aspects was corrupted innocence, tied with sexual desires. However, in the 1961 film The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton, the corruption of the innocent was quite obvious.

         The governess, played by Deborah Kerr, appeared much older in the film than initially described in the book, where she was stated to be in her early twenties. This age difference escalates her disturbing relationship with the young boy Miles, played by Martin Stephens. In the beginning of the film, the governess was quite excited to be caretaker for the children, Miles and Flora, and they were thrilled as well. Both children behaved normally at this point in the film; but, once the governess claimed to see the ghosts of Peter Quint (Peter Wyngarde) and Miss Jessel (Clytie Jessop), young Miles transformed.

         Miles and Flora took a quick liking to the governess, but nothing on the onset was out of the ordinary with her relationships with the children. However, once Peter Quint’s apparition appeared in the window, Miles’ dialogue, actions and personality changed. Throughout the rest of the film, he referred to the governess as “my dear,” which for a young child is not common, and is somewhat unsettling. The term “my dear” is typically used by older men, or at least someone with a higher level of maturity than a young child.

         In addition, Miles constantly seemed a little too close-for-comfort with the governess. One evening when she was tucking Miles into bed, he kissed her on the lips. Granted, mother and children can exchange this showing of affection, but a nanny and her “responsibility” sharing this type of affection is over the top and upsetting. The kiss was more than just a peck; it sparked with passion and meaning on Miles’ part. The governess was taken aback, but Miles performed this in such a manner as if it was not his first time kissing a woman on the lips. It seemed almost natural to him, while it stunned the governess and revolted me.

         The last scene in the garden proved sexual desires and corruption loomed throughout this plot. Miles’ died in the governess’ arms when the ghost of Peter Quint made his heart stop. Most adults would have dealt with the emotional pain of the loss of a child by simply crying, embracing the child, or kissing the top of the head. However, the governess took Miles’ limp body and kissed him on the lips. It was a very troubling image to see an older woman embrace a young, dead child in such a way. The scene is embedded into my memory because it was simply uncalled for. Of course this was a telltale action that screamed to viewers the corruption of the innocent and the sexual tension between the governess and Miles. Whether Miles was actually possessed by Peter Quint or not, the face of young child should not be associated with a passionate lip lock with a mature adult woman.

         The film made it clear to audiences that the governess and Miles’ relationship was not healthy. A young boy would not act in such a way unless he was being influenced by outside factors. However, I think the writers could have approached the theme in a different light. Perhaps that way I would not have the image of a thirty-year-old woman kissing a young boy implanted in my memory.

Alicia Cassady

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