Henry James must be turning in his grave. The Turning is the latest adaptation of his 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. It joins a list of three dozen adaptations of the story. Yes, The Turn of the Screw is already the basis for too many movies, TV specials, operas, and whatnots. There is honestly no reason to adapt The Turn of the Screw once again. The Turning beats a dead horse beyond dignified recognition.
Any new take on The Turn of the Screw, therefore, must bring something new to the table. For one, this canonical ghost story is so familiar that even a faithful adaptation plays like cliché. The Turning, directed by Floria Sigismondi and adapted with an uninspired shrug by Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes, is the worst and most redundant take on the book yet. The Turning is dead on arrival.
The Turning posits itself as a modern take on The Turn of the Screw, but the contemporary setting reveals how stale and tired it is. The year is 1994 (why not?) and it’s two days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Kate (Mackenzie Davis) packs up her bags all giddy about a job that sounds too good to be true. She’s going to be the governess and live-in teacher to a young girl. Kate later makes a joke that her last governessing gig was in the 1800s. However, that “gag” offers the first signal that the source material is outdated for both 1994 and especially 2019.
We Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts
Secondly, the convoluted setting doesn’t work. The creepy manor where Kate works looks like Downton Abbey. But the grand estate in Maine is weirdly anachronistic and out of place. There’s something decidedly British about The Turn of the Screw and an Americanization strips it of the dynamics of class and social hierarchy that are central to the governess’s tailspin. Even Kate’s sparring with the estate’s old battle-axe of a housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), strains credibility. While Marten’s brittle presence as the aged sourpuss provides some (unintentional) comic relief, the tension between Kate and Mrs. Grose creates plot holes a-plenty. (Who are the kids’ guardians? Why doesn’t Kate every actually teach them? Why aren’t social services checking in on these orphans when their governesses keep disappearing?)
The grand estate admittedly provides ample fodder for every haunted house trick in the book. We’re wading knees deep into Winchester territory, dear readers. And if you saw that Helen Mirren movie, you know that’s not a compliment.
Stairs creek and old floors moan. Shadows, flowing curtains, creepy toys, and eerie mirrors provide all the predictable sight tricks and surprises. There isn’t a credible scare or sliver of suspense in The Turning.
The Kids Are Not All Right
Kate shrieks like a ninny and shivers around the eerie kids in her care. The girl, Flora (Brooklyn Prince) is a precocious brat gearing up to audition for the next remake of The Ring. The teenage boy, Miles (The Goldfinch’s Finn Wolfhard), is a sullen, moody, and brooding little monster. Perhaps his angst is the reason for the Cobain reference that begins the film. Prince, who showed so much promise in The Florida Project, seems limited to two settings—cute and annoying—and she takes both to extremes. Wolfhard, meanwhile, simply looks hungover. He can’t convey the sense of menace the film needs once Kate realizes the element of possession that possibly lingers in the house. The young actors can’t carry the show and don’t do Davis any favours as directionless scene partners.
Kate finds herself haunted as noises keep her up at night and eerie sights appear before her eyes. Kate convinces herself that the ghosts of former servants haunt the house. Flora and Miles speak fondly of the departed governess Miss Jessel and the old handyman Peter Quint. Whether they kids are complicit in spooky stuff or further objects of the ghosts’ torment, however, is a riddle for Kate to decode.
Too Many Loose Screws
The nanny could also have a few screws loose if the ghosts exist only in her mind. Here comes The Turning’s third and most grievous strike. James’s tale of a woman undone by insecurities and madness is a product of its time. In 2020, having a young woman unravel and behave like a total boob because she can’t handle responsibility does not play well. The Turning adds an element of mental illness to Kate’s tailspin with the introduction of her mother. Joely Richardson plays Kate’s mom in a few random scenes. She sits in an empty swimming pool (?) in the nuthouse and makes vaguely ominous art. Kate worries that she too is going mad. The crappy CGI apparitions that haunt Kate might simply be her insecurity.
The Turning is honestly just too lazy to bother with the duality that makes James’s novella a classic. It’s almost an afterthought to chuck in some stuff with the mom at the end. The adaptation often too literal with its “scares” and surprises, and leaves little room to keep audiences guessing if the horror exists only in Kate’s mind. There is nothing to justify this film’s existence and even fewer reasons to bother seeing it.
The Turning is now in theatres.