In late 19th century England, an inexperienced young woman (Kerr) becomes governess to a small orphan girl living in a lonely stately home occupied only by the child, a housekeeper and a small complement of servants. Her initial misgivings allayed by the child's angelic nature, her anxieties are once more aroused when the girl's brother, equally captivating, is sent home from boarding school for wickedness of some unspecified kind. Then eerie apparitions and inexplicable behaviour on the children's part cause her to wonder about the house's history, especially about the fate of the previous governess and the former valet, Peter Quint, and to fear for the children's souls and for her own sanity. Eventually convinced that there is an unnatural force at work, perverting the innocence of her charges, she sets out to secure the children's salvation by wresting them from its power. Though her struggle reaches a resolution, its real nature and its outcome ultimately remain ambiguous.