Interpretations of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw are as varied as there are readers, and part of the brilliance of its conceit is that the central question – whether the ghosts in it are real, or an extension of the protagonist’s madness – is neither solvable nor entirely pertinent. The power of the story lies in its experiential and emotional qualities, and the thin space that exists within all of us to one extent or another between the world as it is and how we perceive it to be.
It will unlikely come as a terrible surprise that the new studio-made adaptation of it, Floria Sigismondi’s The Turning, is a good deal more prescriptive about its interpretation than most. Nor should it surprise that it is loaded, especially in its front half, with rather shameless jump scares that ratchet up the fear factor far too quickly (if you see a CGI monster ghost outside your window, a foot from your face, are you likely to shrug it off and keep putting the kid to bed?), and serve only to juice interest in what eventually becomes something suitably strange, uncomfortable, and pointedly incisive.
Mackenzie Davis stars as Kate, who has been hired as the new governess for a young girl, Flora (Brooklyn Prince), with whom she will live at their secluded manor. Flora’s parents died in a car accident some years prior. She has an older brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), who’s away at boarding school…until suddenly, following a violent altercation with another boy, he is sent home. Kate gradually learns more about the kids and the house, she comes to find out that their last governess, Miss Jessel, had been carrying on a relationship with the groundskeeper, Quint, whom Miles idolized. Though they are both dead, Kate keeps seeing these strange figures that resemble them.
The decision to update this story from its Victorian setting was at first something of a cause for alarm, as the most successful adaptations (most notably the 1950 Broadway play The Innocents and the 1961 film adaptation of the same name) tend to stick with it. Much story’s power derives from the unnamed governess’s sexual repression, the fear that stirs up whenever the topic is discussed, a character trait that fits in 1898 but not so well in 1994, the rather-arbitrary modern-ish period in which The Turning is set.
Davis, too, is hardly anyone’s idea of a particularly vulnerable woman, having recently carried her own as an action star in Terminator: Dark Fate and who has elsewhere commanded the screen considerably in Always Shine, Tully, and Blade Runner 2049. Fittingly, Kate arrives to the manor and rather quickly takes charge, confident in herself and her place in the world. Unlike Deborah Kerr in The Innocents, Kate is not comfortable exclusively around children, nor does she completely give herself over to the childlike qualities she so prizes (and which Prince brings out so well; never has a young girl in a horror movie seemed less threatening, a much-needed disarming quality for a film that’s selling exactly that on the poster). Kate is a fully formed adult with a fully formed view of the world, her bright-red coat alone something that would scandalize Kerr’s Miss Giddens, but that doesn’t mean she is without fears; it’s just that the fears modern women have around sex tend to be less entwined with the act itself than how it is wielded.
Without overplaying its hand, The Turning slyly becomes about a woman’s apprehension around a boy at the dawn of his sexual maturity, and the fear of the new violence a boy might come to enact if he starts to see that sexuality as a form of domination or control. Miles makes more than one advance on Kate, and the violent incident at school suggests that he might not restrain himself each time. When we come to find out the nature of Quint and Miss Jessel’s relationship, probably the most overt and substantial change from the source material, things start to click in all the more. The ghosts that haunt the manor are of an intimate sort – in beds and baths and dressing rooms – and Sigismondi gradually twists Kate’s bedroom from a sanctuary to her chief space of torment, the film’s most subtle, telling touch. Davis plays this very well alongside her, adjusting the usual pleasure she takes in the children’s presence with a steeled apprehension whenever they wander into her room.
I liked Sigismondi’s debut film, The Runaways, well enough, but it was her second-season episode of Daredevil, “Kinbaku,” that really caught my eye as an unusually confident and complexly-built hour of television. The Turning, particularly in that first half, is less impressive, the beats it needs to hit more demanding and the rewards less enticing. But once that section peaks with an impressive cellar-set scare-a-thon, the film twists into something much stranger. Even as the ghosts become more present, the scares diminish, isolating Kate further and further, giving more and more into her vision of herself, the inherent self-aggrandizement at the center of any ghost story (just why should the dead want to scare you so badly anyway?), and how slippery this all becomes once you give yourself over to the supernatural.
I don’t want to discuss in any detail the film’s final moments, because truly what would be the point in doing so ahead of its release, but I do want to note that it plays them quite well – aggressively and unconcerned with upsetting audience expectations, right down to a mesmerizing long take that accompanies the closing credits, probably the most exciting use of this gambit in a studio film since George Clooney got in that taxi at the end of Michael Clayton.