Henry James’s novella “The Turn of the Screw” has inspired many screen adaptations, most notably Jack Clayton’s “The Innocents,” which starred Deborah Kerr, and a live TV version with Ingrid Bergman that was directed by John Frankenheimer. In the early ’70s, Marlon Brando headlined a memorably nasty prequel called “The Nightcomers,” and movies from this story have been made all over the world. You have to go out of your way to screw up this material.
“The Turning” is an adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw” that takes place in 1994; we hear over the radio that Kurt Cobain has just committed suicide as we meet our heroine Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a cheerful, slightly nerdy woman who has just received a job as a nanny to an orphaned young girl and boy. In most versions of this story, the governess goes to meet the uncle of these orphans, but in this movie Kate goes to see her mentally-ill mother, who is played by Joely Richardson, the granddaughter of Michael Redgrave, who played the uncle in “The Innocents.”
Like the best screen versions of this story, “The Innocents” is a psychological horror movie and very subtle and very open to interpretation. But “The Turning” director Floria Sigismondi (“The Runaways”) and screenwriters Carey Hayes and Chad Hayes (“The Conjuring”) have a definite slant on “The Turn of the Screw” that they make obvious at the outset, and there is nothing subtle about it.
From the scene with her mother onward, Davis’s Kate is set up as someone who might be mentally unbalanced, even if Davis herself often incongruously behaves like the lead in a romantic comedy rather than a gothic horror movie. She has not been helped by a blonde coiffure that is so rigid and harshly cut that it makes it look like she is trying to act under an enchanted cottage.
Kate drives to the estate where her charges live and meets the foreboding Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who has been with the family for generations. She refers to the orphaned Miles (Finn Wolfhard) and Flora (Brooklynn Prince) as “thoroughbreds”; there is an attempt to set up a clash between Mrs. Grose’s old-fashioned British standards of behavior versus Kate’s much more confessional and lackadaisical American attitude, but it doesn’t quite gel.
Sigismondi sets up several “gotcha” scares in a row as Kate begins to see the ghosts of the abused Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) and the abusive Peter Quint (Niall Greig Fulton), who had once been in charge of the children, and these scares might be more effective if they were spaced further apart. When Miles and Flora pull a prank on Kate, and she dives into a pool because she thinks Flora might be drowning, the sequence backfires because it is only possible to feel relief that Davis’s unnervingly thick hairdo is finally wet, slicked-down, and not getting in her way.
“The Turn of the Screw” is most modern and most disturbing in its portrayal of the sexual contamination of children by the influence of a brutish male adult, but Sigismondi generally flinches from the implications of the relationship between Miles and Kate and the way he flirts with her in a menacing way that he can’t seem to help. In that sense, “The Innocents” is far more unsettling because it makes us question what is learned and what is innate in children, and if evil is there waiting to be brought out or if it has to be implanted.
Around halfway through “The Turning,” it is made clear that Kate is unstable, and this is even hit home with dialogue to that effect by Mrs. Grose, who wonders aloud about Kate’s connection to her ill mother. And so all of the life and the fear and complication drain out of the story because there is very little left to wonder about. If she is ill and only seeing things, why does Kate fear Peter Quint so much? We learn nothing at all about Kate’s past experience with men and why she might conjure up the ghost of a man who abused women and children.
“The Turning” is not a total loss. There are some stylish, nearly giallo-like sequences and sensitive performances from both Wolfhard and Prince, both of whom look like they could go further with their roles if the script didn’t eventually limit them to reactions in the second half. There needs to be a growing panic in the last third of this story, but in “The Turning,” all the terror and the doubt is removed by a script that calls its heroine mad outright and doesn’t let the implications of her possible madness resonate.