The Turning

 

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DreamWorks’ take on Henry James’s classic ghost story is more screwy than anything approaching scary.

   

Turning, The

Mad or maddening? Mackenzie Davis 

 

There can be a thin line between the inspired and the completely barmy. The Turning may be the most daring film of the year, or perhaps just the most foolhardy. As a major international release, co-produced by DreamWorks and Amblin Entertainment, its arbitrary, hallucinogenic logic is astonishing – and infuriating. Owing a visual debt to the paintings of Francis Bacon, the film is less a supernatural scare fest than a descent into madness. Yet, it fails on both counts. Long before anything untoward happens, the default button has been set at tedium.

 

Loosely based on Henry James’s 1898 ghost story The Turn of the Screw, a classic work that has been fiddled with about a dozen times – notably as The Innocents in 1961 – the new version is, for some reason, set in 1994. The location has also been moved from the English countryside to Maine and the characters liberally altered. The protagonist here is Kate Mandell, played by the Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis, a teacher who’s landed the plum job of governess to a recently orphaned seven-year-old. “I’m going from 25 screaming kids to one little girl,” she tells her roommate. “How bad can it be?” Then, as she pulls up in front of the mansion she is about to call home, Kate mutters to herself: “This can’t be real.” And, in a way, it isn’t. Kate’s charge is the retiring but mischievous Flora (Brooklynn Prince), who is forbidden from leaving the grounds of the estate. The only other adult in the place is the chilly, strict housekeeper Mrs Grose (Barbara Marten), who imparts contradictory instructions to Kate on how to handle Flora and, as it turns out, Flora’s older brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard). In spite of her best efforts, Kate fails to win the confidence or respect of the children, who play hideous games on her and communicate mixed signals. During all this psychological foreplay are little hints that all is not straightforward. Kate tells Mrs Grose that she hasn’t been a live-in governess since the 1800s, while Flora reveals psychic tendencies. Miles, on the other hand, is just a sullen brat.

 

Unfortunately, any intrigue these details may have conveyed are undone by a chain of clichés straight out of the haunted house handbook. The film opens with a melodramatic prologue, so that everything that follows is essentially a flashback. There are the usual jump scares, portentous music, dry ice and fleeting apparitions materialising in windows and mirrors. More exasperating are the frequent scenes that turn out to be merely the imaginings of Kate in her sleep. Indeed, she seems to be nodding off all over the place. Had this film been released twenty years ago, one might have suspected that the reels had been projected in the wrong order.

 

Patently, the director, the Italian-born Floria Sigismondi, is playing with us. But in so doing she has robbed her film of any sense. The clichés are wearisome; the kaleidoscopic nature of the narrative annoying. And without so much as a by-your-leave, the film ends; period. There is obviously a much better thriller struggling to get out, a fact evinced by the presence of Barbara Marten as Mrs Grose. Perhaps best known for playing Eve Montgomery in TV’s Casualty, the actress brings an ambiguity to the housekeeper that is at once elitist, cold, protective and arrogant. Henry James described Mrs Grose as “kind and affectionate”, two adjectives hardly in the vocabulary of the woman portrayed here. Yet her inscrutability brings an edge to the film that, for a while, at least, provides a potential for something entirely more satisfying – and disturbing.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten, Joely Richardson, Niall Greig Fulton, Kim Adis.

 

Dir Floria Sigismondi, Pro Scott Bernstein, Roy Lee and Seth William Meier, Screenplay Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes, based on The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Ph David Ungaro, Pro Des Paki Smith, Ed Duwayne Dunham and Glenn Garland, Music Nathan Barr, Costumes Leonie Prendergast, Dialect coach Brendan Gunn.

 

DreamWorks Pictures/Amblin Entertainment/Vertigo Entertainment-Entertainment One.

94 mins. UK/USA/Ireland/Canada. 2020. Rel: 24 January 2020. Cert. 15.