Since the novella’s release in 1898, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw has captivated many. The novella has inspired many adaptations, with the most well-known being Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. You know, the film that even Guillermo del Toro referred to as a source of inspiration for his film Crimson Peak? Given that the story has been reworked and explored for about a century, it makes one wonder what new can be added to a story to make it seem fresh. In the latest adaptation of the novella, director Floria Sigismondi and screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes deliver their own take on the story in THE TURNING. While some of the creative decisions made on the film worked out and the visuals absolutely shine, the overall film sinks as a result of the jarring, uncalled for ending.
The story itself is familiar given how Henry James’ initially created what has become a staple of current ghost stories. For those who have not read the novella or seen the handful of adaptations, the synopsis is as follows. THE TURNING takes us to a mysterious estate in the Maine countryside, where newly appointed nanny, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), is charged with the care of two disturbed orphans, Flora (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard). Quickly though, she discovers that both the children and the house are harboring dark secrets and things may not be as they appear. While the synopsis is similar to the source material and previous adaptations, there have been a few changes made that make the film stand out.
Most notably, we get more backstory behind Kate prior to her arrival to the estate, which serves to solidify the idea that her psychological state is compromised. This backstory shows that Kate’s mother (played by an underutilized Joely Richardson) is living in a mental facility. We aren’t explicitly told or shown what is mentally wrong with her except that she isolates herself and seems to be in her own little world. This backstory also enables us to easily see the more psychological physical changes that happen with Kate throughout the course of the story but, with the inclusion of the more spooky, supernatural elements, we still find ourselves doubting whether or not these things are manifestations of her mind or not. Another big change is that the character of Miles has been notably aged up from previous adaptations, which helps to create more realistic tension with Kate. For fans of previous adaptations, they will also note that the backstory between Quint (Niall Greig Fulton) and Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) is also different. But, if you guys have seen the prequel The Nightcomers, elements of the backstory may remind you of what was featured in that film.
Visually, THE TURNING is absolutely exquisite. You can see how the team really came together to create an amazing visual meal for our eyes. First off, the home was a character all on its own and I’m sure a lot of it had to do with production designer Paki Smith’s expert dressing. Even without the added benefit of a ghost story, the manor has an eerie presence all by itself. Then there’s the cinematography and costume design. Cinematographer David Ungaro does an amazing job utilizing the cool color palette to create the eerie sensibility that has occupied the manor. That in tandem with the clothing arc costume designer Leonie Prendergast planned out for Kate, where we start off with warm, bright colors before the cool palette starts to take over, really helps deliver a visual splendor. The camera work featured in the film as it progressed also helped to create that progressively anxious feeling, which aimed to get the audience to feel that sense of anxiety that Kate was feeling. Unfortunately, there were factors that prevented this from being the case.
The script and the direction contributed to the film’s inability to properly feel scared in the moment despite the powerful performances delivered by the cast. I am using this phrase unironically, but there were moments when I couldn’t help thinking, “Well, that escalated quickly.” There’s one moment in particular that stands out, where Kate is on the phone with her roommate having made up her mind about leaving but, without missing a beat, says she’s heading back. There’s no transition. No logical explanation for the sudden change of heart in the writing, despite Davis’s attempt to showcase this change in her face. This disconnect between the writing and the direction was something that was present a fair bit in the film. There were moments, particularly in the scenes with Miles and Barbara Marten’s Mrs. Grose, that became unnecessarily, almost Hammer-like dramatic due to awkward prolonged pauses in place. This led to it almost taking on an unintentionally hilarious quality, but not because it was necessarily funny. But because it was just painfully awkward.
The most glaring problem in THE TURNING happens in the last 20 minutes of the film. At this point, we have bought into the narrative that has been taking place and we are completely on board with what Sigismondi and the Hayes have constructed for us. But then, we are abruptly cut off and introduced to something wholly different that doesn’t match up with what we’ve seen. This is as vague as I can get without spoiling anything. However, I’ll say this. Part of why the original The Turn of the Screw has resonated for such a long time is due to the ambiguity of what we see from the unreliable governess’s point of view. The audience is left guessing as to what is and isn’t real. This gets lost with the ending that Sigismondi and the Hayes have created for us, especially when reflecting back on everything that has been laid out for us. Yes, there are small clues, but none of the breadcrumbs that we’ve found leading up to this point support what felt like an unearned conclusion. As a result, the whole experience of THE TURNING is soured and is well likely to piss off or confuse a great ton of people.
Overall, in a film that aims to stand out in a sea of adaptations, it does succeed in that regard. However, what makes the film stand out is the awkward writing and that abrupt, unearned ending. This is one of those instances where going back for one final re-write on the script might have done the film some good, especially considering how absurdly disconnected the last 20 minutes was. While I recommend the film for those who are a fan of the original novella and, in all honesty, for the visuals and the performances, I’m not sure I’d want to subject any of you to that ending. If you can stomach the thought of having a rug ripped out from under you and someone smacking your face repeatedly while you’re on the ground trying to figure out what’s going on, then maybe go see it. If not, just skip the film and go re-watch The Innocents. It’ll save you the headache.
Universal will release THE TURNING domestically and in select international territories on January 24, 2020.