I dislike using the word “innocence” because it is so misused and often only in a positive context. However, it is my experience that children are just like adults in almost every way. They can be cruel, generous, vengeful, courageous, cowardly, just and unjust. In my remarks about Ana in Cría cuervos—which Pip recently reviewed—I said that she was absolved of murder in the audience’s eyes because the can of baking soda was not really poison and thus she never really killed anyone. But Pip pointed out that this is irrelevant from a moral perspective. Because children do not yet have a fully-developed grasp of consequences, they can do things with full confidence that we would consider rash and they themselves might regret later.
I discovered Celia (1989) while reviewing The Coca-Cola Kid starring Rebecca Smart and I did some follow up by watching The Shiralee and added some supplemental information at the end of that post. But when I watched Celia, I knew this film had real substance and would have to stand alone. The typical synopsis says that Celia is a troubled girl, but my impression is she is a real child—no less than, say, Huck Finn. Pip said that he once saw this film for rent in the horror section! Ridiculous; this is clearly a period drama reflecting the anxieties of a troubled society in 1957/58 Australia. The ostensible horror comes from Celia’s dreams and imaginings associated with the death of her beloved Granny and fueled by the story of the Hobyahs who creep about at night snatching people.
The stage is set when Celia Carmichael (Smart) goes to the shack where her grandmother lives and finds her dead. The depth of their relationship is revealed gradually and here we see a sincere Celia telling her Granny that she will miss her. Throughout the movie, she imagines seeing Granny as though she were still alive.
Because of her close bond with Granny, she did not really take the time to bond with other children and she appears to have only one friend, Heather Goldman (Clair Couttie).
A family called the Tanners move in next door and she starts to bond with them. At first, her mother is pleased to see her playing with other children.
We learn that she is turning 9 during the Christmas break and that she has a nemesis, Stephanie Burke (Amelia Frid), the daughter of a police sergeant the family call “Uncle John”. It is revealed that the girls are engaged in a pitched but covert battle. Celia wants a rabbit for her birthday, but her father refuses, telling her they are vermin. In the background of this story are two political dramas: one involving the fear of communism and the other, the plague of rabbits that are destroying farmers’ crops. When school resumes, Celia is irritated that Stephanie got a pet rabbit and she didn’t.
The neighborhood children spend a lot of time playing in an abandoned quarry with a kind of contaminated water hole and a shed. Celia shares her magic mask with the other children which Stephanie ridicules and runs off with, resulting in a chase and a fight. Celia returns victorious with a lock of Stephanie’s hair.
Celia and the Tanner children—Steve, Karl and Meryl—become fast friends and they take a blood oath together, “Swear on my living heart; blood will never part.” This oath presumes that the Tanners are now allied with Celia against Stephanie.
We learn that Granny read a lot of books about communism and Celia observes that Alice Tanner (Victoria Longley), the mother, has similar materials. This is a kind of signal that Alice is taking the place of Granny in watching over Celia. In so bonding, Celia brings over some of Granny’s papers and photographs which the Tanners examine knowingly. Whenever Celia got lonely or in trouble, she would sneak into Granny’s shack for comfort, but now she has Alice.
Celia’s father, Ray, notices a pamphlet—which Alice had used to make a paper airplane—and interrogates Celia about it. In a rage, Ray goes into Granny’s shack and takes all the books out to burn them which upsets Celia terribly. In a scheme to get her not to play with the Tanners any more, he buys her a rabbit. Does she name it Flopsy or Patch? No, her rabbit is named Murgatroid.
Somehow, word of the Tanners’ sympathies with communist philosophy reaches the children at large and Stephanie and her allies go the quarry to taunt and attack the others. The police arrive to break up the fight and Uncle John begins to show his hypocrisy by punishing the other children but not his own daughter who started the fight.
Celia learns that Evan Tanner got sacked from his job because he refused to leave the Australian Peace Council which was widely regarded as a communist front. The kids believe it was Uncle John who was the informant and so they engage in a little witchcraft, burning the Burke family in effigy and then throwing the dolls into Stephanie’s room at night. Later they learn that it was actually Ray, in a misguided attempt at manipulation, and Celia leads the children in burning her own father in effigy.
While doing this, they are ambushed by Stephanie and the other children who lock them up in the shed and torture Murgatroid by scorching her rear with a burning brand. Celia, at her angriest in the film, vows to get even.
After the Tanners move away, a government policy has forced all the children to turn their rabbits in to the zoo. John visits the Carmichaels to convince them that Celia must give up Murgatroid as well, but they refuse. When Stephanie forms a kind of support group for children who have lost their rabbits, she is mystified why Celia does not join. And when Celia returns home, she realizes that her rabbit is gone too and blames Uncle John.
After much posturing and politicking and a popular letter-writing campaign, the government is pressured to allow permits for pet rabbits. The children all go to the zoo to retrieve their rabbits, but Celia and Heather learn that theirs died during their temporary internment.
They vow to get revenge. They get dressed up and put on war paint in readiness to rid themselves of the despicable Sergeant Burke. Celia was aware her father kept a shotgun for hunting ducks and readies it. The thing that psyches Celia into pulling the trigger is that she imagines that her Uncle John is a Hobyah and suddenly he is dead.
Celia and Heather try to hide some of the evidence and Heather is made to swear that this act will be kept a secret forever. The police learn that it was Ray’s shotgun that was used but cannot find a suspect. Celia’s mother later notices a bruise on her chest and realizes what has happened.
The Carmichael family keep quiet and Celia seems to resume her normal life. When Stephanie returns to school after the tragedy, Celia has a change of heart and prays with the rest of the class for their family’s future well-being. In one final ritual, Celia leads all the children to the quarry to conduct a symbolic hanging to give Stephanie some closure for the unsolved murder and Heather, who plays the condemned prisoner, has proven she can keep a secret. The children are united now as they race up the slope of the quarry.
The notion of an innocent girl as a cop killer is a truly remarkable premise and, I believe, well executed in this film. The implications are disturbing, but it serves to challenge our assumptions of what a child is and what justice is. In times of stress, so often people resort to black-and-white dogmatic beliefs: communists are evil, rabbits are vermin, the government is always right. But we see throughout the film that many injustices are committed by the authorities—the mothers, the fathers, the school teachers, the police and government officials.
I think that the only proper use of the words “innocence” and “innocent” is in the legal meaning, for instance in reference to a trial in court.
After reading Kincaid’s two books on children, I consider that in reference to childhood, the main thing in the word “innocence” is the Latin privative prefix “in-“, as in other words of Latin/French origin associated to that state: “ignorance”, “immaturity”, “impotence”, “irresponsibility” and “infantilism”; there is also the related English variant prefix “un-“, as in “unconcern”, and the Anglo-Saxon privative suffix “-less” as in “thoughtlessness”. Thus “childhood innocence” is just an artificial state of voidness where the mental and physical state of a baby or a toddler is extended to cover a large part of youth.