You can feel a creative condemnation clawing through the clumsy, commercial circumspection of The Turning — the latest film based on Henry James’ 19th-century supernatural novella The Turn of the Screw.
This version hails from co-writers of The Conjuring, features a co-star of Stranger Things, and has landed in January nearly two years after filming concluded. In many ways, The Turning is but the newest random target on Hollywood’s dartboard of defanged, deathly boring literary adaptations. And yet there’s enough ephemera about the piggish entitlement of manor-born males and their gaslighting gamesmanship to make you wonder what director Floria Sigismondi could’ve done without ledgers to salvage, PG-13 punches to pull or studio masters to serve.
It’s also worth considering what The Turning might accomplish were it not beholden to feature length. Sigismondi’s signature work is in music videos, and indeed, many individual shots from The Turning bear the brackish aesthetic of Buzz Bin-era MTV thanks to a perfectly arbitrary choice to set the film in 1994 — two days after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, to be precise. (Just pay no mind to an anachronistic soundtrack featuring Mitski, Soccer Mommy and Cherry Glazerr.) Sigismondi’s artfully moody abstractions might have expressed 10 times the power at one-tenth of the length. In other words, it could’ve been one helluva P.J. Harvey video back in the day.
Instead, we have Mackenzie Davis — perpetually unable to catch a big-screen break — as Kate, a teacher making the shift to private tutoring. Her first charge is Flora (Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project), a young girl whose parents and nanny recently died. In the expanse of Maine’s creepiest castle, Flora is under the care of housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten, who resembles a breathing Henry Selick stop-motion action figure).
Flora and Kate hit it off right away — surprisingly well, in fact, given that the first playtime creation Kate sees of Fiona’s are dolls she has beheaded and arranged in a circle around a birdbath. Or that Fiona has created a rather creepy facsimile of her dead grandmother. That’s before Flora’s older teenage brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), turns up in the middle of the night in full creeper mode. Miles is a bratty dick whose return from boarding school was precipitated by expulsion after his violent attack on a peer. Miles also has no compunction about urinating in front of Kate. Or entering her room without knocking. Or openly ogling her while she’s asleep.
It’s here where Sigismondi seems to structure The Turning as the portrait of a lady beset by putrid acts men perform with impunity, its very title, and one character’s tattoo, suggestive of a cycle that never ends. Anyone familiar with James’ novella (so maybe 2% of the audience The Turning’s ad campaign is courting) knows that story is a triumph of inference over incident — expressing supernatural qualities in subtext rather than scare tactics. The best adaptations treat it as a canvas on which to cast a fresh connotation, and indeed, The Turning’s best collisions and confrontations let you wince at where it may be heading. They’re also rare instances in which Davis and Wolfhard aren’t asked to do their respective best wide-eyed panics and thousand-yard stares — although if you’re casting for a contemporary governess, Davis at least has all the right genes.
Soon enough, Kate begins to see ghostly apparitions. And see them. And see them. And then see them in a dream. And then wake up to see them in actuality. It’s not the dread you want from horror but rather a realization this is just going to drag out to 90-some minutes. That it does so in the manner of Dario Argento with all the ardor drained makes it even more disappointing.
And yet good luck forgetting that opening shot of the closing credits — an unbroken take of more nerve-rattling purpose than anything in 1917. Down to the detuned dirge from composer Nathan Barr accompanying it, this dastardly digestif suggests a gothic chiller that didn’t cloister its more chaotic impulses. It also recalls Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, itself a 19th-century short-story classic six years before The Turn of the Screw. Sigismondi is acutely aware of very tangible ghouls that haven’t changed much since then and how they could factor into her story … if only it weren’t forced to focus on tired ghosts or gotchas.