The Turning (15)
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Review: RJ Bland
Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw', written in 1898, is probably one of the most famous classical ghost stories ever written. In 1961 it received a largely faithful and very good film adaptation in the form of George Clayton's 'The Innocents'. It's stylish and atmospheric and features a great central performance from Deborah Kerr. However, it's been a long time since we've had a modern retelling of the story - 59 years is a long time for a horror film NOT to be remade. So the news broke early last year that we were going to get one, there weren't quite as many sighs as there usually is when a reboot is announced. As details began to emerge regarding the talent involved in the project, interest began to grow. Indeed, we put it on our list of films we couldn't wait to see in 2020 back in December. Classic source material, a talented cast, a promising director and a sense of good timing – it had all the ingredients to be a success. We pulled the curtains shut tight and settled down to see if it was a turn up for the books – or a screw job.
The Turning opens with a young woman fleeing an estate (one of the big house types, not a tower block jobby) in terror. When she reaches the gate however, she is attacked a rather scruffy looking man. We then switch to another young women called Kate, who we learn is leaving her job as a teacher to become a live in nanny (or Governess) for a little girl, Flora, who lives on a big estate as her previous nanny upped and left suddenly (although we know that there's a good chance she never made it out!). When she arrives, she can't quite believe how grand her new residence is – but her awe is short lived as the housekeeper (an uptight old school type) informs her Flora witnessed her parents dying in a car crash outside the gates of the property. Kate wanders off to find Flora and when she does, the two of them soon hit it off. Flora asks her new nanny to promise her she won't leave her like the last one did. Kate crosses her heart. However it's a promise that she soon starts to regret. Flora mischievous nature and the coldness of the housekeeper are a bit rough but things get worse when Flora's brother returns from boarding school having been expelled for assaulting another student. He's a brooding teenage menace. Add in an extremely creepy old house, dark family secrets, strange noises and visions and it's no wonder that Kate is soon considering throwing the towel in. However, leaving might not be quite as straightforward as that...
This review is being published relatively late so there is already a general consensus that exists out there amongst the vast majority of people that have seen it. That is, that the film sucks, hard. The reason for this negative response is almost entirely down to the ending (which I will come onto in a bit). Although it's true the finale undoes a lot of the good stuff that becomes before it, it doesn't destroy it completely. For an hour or so the film is actually rather captivating and atmospheric. Once Kate arrives at the house, writers Chad and Carey Hayes (The Conjuring) waste no time in throwing jolts and jump scares our way, some more effective than others admittedly. It's all quite conventional stuff – doors slamming, mannequins moving, faces appearing at windows etc but for those who looking old fashioned, gothic yarns will dig it for sure.
The film looks beautifully eerie too. Director Floria Sigismondi gives us a classic muted palette and large sweeping visuals and although the film is set in the 90s, it feels almost like it could be the 1890s. The use of light (or lack of it) is also smartly done. We know that walking around an old house in the middle of the night is never a good idea and Sigismondi milks it for all its worth. We'd expect nothing less of course. The cast list is actually very small but the three main players all give solid turns. Mackenzie Davis is the perfect choice as the bright eyed if rather naïve teacher and Brooklynn Prince somehow manages to avoid coming across as one of those annoyingly smart ass kids, as can often happen. Finn Wolfhard is also enjoyably dislikeable in a rather challenging role. There's none of the Stranger Things sweetness here.
However, the further the film goes on, the more it feels disconnected. The flow of the first half is replaced by a rather disjointed pace and we get an overload of ghostly visuals and emotional scenes that weigh a little heavy. Of course, it could be argued that this is all representative of Kate's mental breakdown over the course of the film but it just feels like a number of things are set up earlier in the story that are either forgotten or left unexplained by the end. However, it's the finale that has ultimately costs The Turning dear. It's not what they were trying to do that is so bothersome, more how they went about doing it. In it's defence, there were always question marks and debates over the original novella but unfortunately it's not an excuse for a climax that will leave most feeling confused or angry. Or both. Upon reflection, there is some intrigue to be had thinking about earlier scenes and what they mean and a second watch may shed new light. Until then however, it feels like a squandered opportunity.