Henry James 1898 novella ‘The Turn of Screw’ has found itself the subject of several cinematic adaptations and interpretations over the years. The most notable of these being Jack Clayton’s exquisite and unparalleled The Innocents in 1961. However, with The Turning director Floria Sigismondi attempts to take the gothic horror of Henry James into 1990’s America. While equally playing with the novellas themes of domestic violence, mental health and childhood innocence. However, despite there being some redeeming qualities, the end result is nothing short of a confused mess. As the narrative lurches between ghost story, corrupted innocence and mental decline. With none of these aspects finding their true footing as the the film concludes with a ham fisted attempt at divergence from the source material.
Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis) is a young women looking for a new and exciting job role. And when a one appears as a live-in carer and teacher for the Fairchild’s she jumps right in. Leaving her mentally-ill artist mother (Joely Richardson) to relocate to the wealthy family’s sprawling estate. An estate that feels utterly disconnected to the choice of a 1990’s American location.
On arrival Kate finds herself coldly welcomed into the family house by Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten). An elderly women who appears to harbour her own secrets under a cloak of tradition and routine. However, on meeting Flora (Brooklynn Prince). Kate finds her initial doubts and concerns relegated to the front gate. As young Flora welcomes her into the house with abundant imagination and enthusiasm. However, when Flora’s older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) suddenly returns home from boarding school, the atmosphere begins to unravel. His volatile behaviour having led to his exclusion from school. Behaviour that despite Kate’s care and attention continues to become increasingly challenging and predatory. Meanwhile the dangerous ghosts and secrets of the families past slowly converge on the house and it occupants.
The Turning starts from a promising premise, following the narrative trail of the Henry James novella. However, this is soon replaced by the generic need to provide jump scares. In turn replacing the simmering tension and mystery with a paint by numbers horror picture. The is especially disappointing given the possibilities at play in the screenplay of Carey and Chad Hayes (The Conjuring). Where themes of domestic violence and corrupted innocence briefly find a new voice, only to be left hanging in the final delivery.
These are themes that sit within the shadows of the Henry James novella. And have equally threaded through many of the adaptations, while remaining hidden from sight. The misogyny and violence of Quint held firmly in the unseen, just like his oppressive ghostly presence. But with The Turning and the introduction of an older teenage Miles, there is a limited attempt to explore these themes more fully. As Wolfhard’s Miles skirts the realms of sexually predatory behaviour towards Kate. While equally embodying the anger, and aggression of a young man who has seen far too much violence in his younger years. His own views of women and sex built through a relationship with a toxic mentor. However, no matter how interesting these fresh themes could be. They are never carried through any meaningful fruition.
Performances are engaging and sincere, although equally stifled by a lack of direction. Creating a sense of each actor being equally confused by the journey their character takes. And while scenes between Finn Wolfhard and Mackenzie Davis often buzz with the tension of a foreboding disaster. Each actor has neither the time nor dialogue needed to build this into something more meaningful and creative.
However, the real failings of the The Turning lay within an ending that feels tacked on to the main narrative. Both director and writers seemingly trying to weave an alternate end to the novel. While equally failing in this mission with a ludicrous and bizarre final act. One that not only takes away the gothic horror of the Henry James book, but undoes any limited tension and horror built throughout the film. Ultimately delivering a confused, simplistic and dull interpretation of a classic horror.
Director: Floria Sigismondi