Review by C.J. Bunce
Henry James’s 1898 Collier’s Weekly serialized novella The Turning of the Screw has seen its share of adaptations in the past 125 years, including popular versions The Innocents in 1961 starring Deborah Kerr, and most recently the popular The Haunting of Bly Manor limited series on Netflix in 2020. Also in 2020, Floria Sigismondi, most famous for her numerous rock videos, directed a movie adaptation of James’s novella called The Turning. Filmed at the lavish Killruddery House in Ireland, The Turning has all the ambiance a fan of Gothic novels, Gothic horror, or just plain creepy ghost stories could want. It also features Station 11 and Terminator: Dark Fate star Mackenzie Davis and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard. Unfortunately, similar to The Haunting of Bly Manor, the story never comes together and stops abruptly in a completely unsatisfying finish. It also doesn’t wrestle much with the complex themes the source material has seen in other adaptations over the years.
The Turning is streaming now on Freevie and Prime Video.
Davis plays Kate, the new governess hired to take care of two kids in 1994 (why not make it 1998 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the story?). Wolfhard plays Miles, the boy, and Brooklynn Prince plays his younger sister Flora. Their parents died in a car accident and the children are currently under the care of the housekeeper, Barbara Marten as Ms. Grose, a by-the-book 19th century woman of the house who knows her place and has an “anything goes” attitude toward the children whose trust fund pays her way. Miles and Flora have just lost their former governess Miss Jessel and a ground’s man and riding instructor named Quint. Unlike in other adaptations, these characters stay primarily off the screen.
At first Flora seems like a normal little girl. Kate faces her duties much like Kate Hudson’s caregiver in The Skeleton Key. In fact if you’ve seen that movie you will probably expect a similar result lies ahead–some kind of supernatural possession, some kind of grim, creepy reality for Mackenzie Davis’s Kate. But Kate just sees movements at first–not the good gotchas of a typical horror movie–and eventually they appear in dreams that the kids also see, and eventually they appear in mirrors.
But for the first hour the viewer is left to search out his/her own clues. Is everything as it seems? Why is Miles such a pervy little teenager? Why is he so rude? Is he merely a bad kid? Flora is entirely isolated and not allowed to leave the grounds by Ms. Grose until Kate forces the issue. She actually never gets to leave, leaving the viewer to ponder whether it’s because she can’t from some supernatural explanation. Are these just disturbed bad kids justified in part because of poor upbringing despite their vast wealth? Is Kate just weak-minded and in the wrong place at the wrong time, and why doesn’t she go home when her friend advises her to get out? We never learn what is keeping her there, other than her view of her upbringing as being similarly challenging. Ultimately all the answers seem to be the obvious, simple ones. The director and screenwriting team Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes (The Conjuring, The Flash, Diagnosis Murder) just dodge every conflict.
This adaptation has much in common with both the movie The Others in its uncertain reality and haunts, and the TV series Archive 81 with its isolation and its lead seemingly following in the footsteps of someone whose diary was left behind with chilling contents.
Historically The Turning of the Screw has been argued to have been riddled with ambiguity. Is it a ghost story, a view of people struggling with mental issues, or something else entirely? In truth James was commissioned to write a ghost story, and on its face it seems to be just that: a simple ghost story. Floria Sigismondi seems to skip over the conflict–she shows the audience ghosts from almost the very beginning, leaving the prospect of mental issues touched on only slightly. Joely Richardson plays Kate’s mother, who is in some type of asylum or mental health facility. Are we to assume Kate has some hereditary illness that makes her delusional? Viewers can only ask the questions. No clear answers will be found here, except that the viewers are shown ghosts so we’re left to believe Kate is really seeing them, too.
Viewers will need to watch the ending a few times to understand what happens. It’s as if the writers or director ran out of time, shot a scene twice, spliced both edits into the final cut and then added a last-minute effort to query whether Kate could have some kind of mental issue. It’s so late-breaking and poorly handled that it feels like you’re being jerked around and forgotten as a viewer. The ending is why the film has so many one-star reviews. It’s disappointing especially after the promising beginning.
So this is for anyone who has seen all the other Gothic movies and series and is interested in the spooky visuals and minimal tension, or fans of Mackenzie Davis. Finn Wolfhard’s character is unlikable at every level, so his fans should probably dodge this one. Consider yourself warned. The Turning is now streaming on Freevie and Prime Video.