As soon as the irritating visual and aural tics of the The Turn of the Screw begin, you know you’re in trouble. For all the textual subtleties of Henry James’ source, this BBC adaptation, directed by the otherwise excellent Tim Fywell, unwittingly vindicates the motto that less is more.
For the uninitiated, the original novella takes place in 19th century England, and tells the story of a unnamed, naïve young governess, who is employed by a wealthy man unwilling to take the responsibility of caring for his newly-orphaned young nephew and niece, Miles and Flora. Set in a large country house called Bly, the problems begin when the governess begins to see the ghosts of two former staff members who died in mysterious circumstances: Peter Quint, a servant, and Miss Jessel, the previous governess, who were also lovers.
As the story progresses and the apparitions manifest more frequently, the governess begins to believe the malevolent spirits are exerting a negative and evil influence over the children, who she thinks are involved in a conspiracy of silence with the dead couple. James’ narrative provokes alternative interpretations, and we start to question whether the ghosts the governess sees are real or imagined. Are Quint and Jessel really wandering the expansive gardens, rooms and halls of Bly, or are the apparitions a figment of the governess’ fragile mind, perhaps a projection of her fertile imagination and sexual repression?
For this television adaptation, screenwriter Sandy Welch has relocated the action from the late 1800s to the 1920s. The practice of psychiatry had sufficiently developed by this period to accommodate Welch’s establishing scene – effectively an epilogue – which takes place in a post-WWI asylum. It finds a sympathetic young psychiatrist interviewing Ann (the governess character) about the great trauma that has just taken place at Bly. The whole film is essentially a long flashback, with occasional returns to Ann’s psychiatric ward interview.
Unfortunately, despite this intriguing post-war premise, once the story proper begins, we’re thrust into an overly clichéd film hampered by its gimmicky attempts to create a strange, supernatural atmosphere. These distractions are to the detriment of the both the scares and the psychological complexity of the tale.
Seemingly part-influenced by the contemporary aesthetics of the neo-horror genre, short sequences and scene transitions in The Turn of the Screw are shot like little avant-garde television commercials, and are completely at odds with both the period and subject matter. In the first ten minutes alone we are treated to double exposure, overexposure, flash edits, talky scenes shot with a fidgety, shaking camera (what dramatic purpose does this serve?), sped-up/slowed-down film, and a cacophonous soundtrack of reverse reverb and heavily distorted clangs, screams, whispers and whooshes.
The film is slick beyond purpose and peppered with gloss and noise. Any attempts made to slowly construct a quiet, pervasive atmosphere of mounting tension, creepiness and dread are constantly dissipated each and every time the self-conscious stylistic nonsense loudly punctuates the flow. Understated terror is not enhanced by flash and din; quite the opposite in fact.
In addition to the fussy cinematography, editing and sound design, this lack of subtlety is prevalent throughout the narrative. For example, the numerous symbolic shots of spiders in webs (evil, clearly), followed by shots of flies, butterflies and insects ripe for capture (representing Ann, one assumes) are too frequent and ram the point home excessively; Quint’s corruptive power and depravity are conveyed during several loud and unconvincing scenes of sex, violence and rape; unsurprisingly, the later sequences featuring Miles’ and Flora’s ‘possession’ by the ghosts shun the ambiguity of the novella and instead rely on The Exorcist-style bellowing and histrionics (and even regardless of all this, there are clearly going to issues with a film that contains a clichéd ‘heavy breathing in the bushes’ point-of-view shot early on).
It may be relevant to mention here, by way of comparison, a previous adaptation of James’ novel, the terrific 1961 Jack Clayton film The Innocents. Clayton’s version, greatly aided by Freddie Francis’ superbly eerie black and white cinematography, is a master class in restraint and subtlety. Themes of possession, insanity and the supernatural are examined beautifully and above all quietly. Moments in The Innocents in which the brutish Quint and the drowned Jessel appear as ghosts are not telegraphed in any way beforehand – they are almost silent, in fact — yet these instances are shattering, even in broad daylight.
However, in this adaptation, the two phantoms look young, healthy and appealing (Quint sports designer stubble and an indie band haircut), and each of the ghosts’ appearances is too overplayed, visible and chaotic. It would have helped had they been more infrequent, distant and brooding spectral visitors.
Instead, Fywell and Welch have unwisely chosen to show both Quint and Jessel in extensive flashback sequences, when the pair were still decadent, promiscuous and living members of staff. Not only does this humanise them far too much, but renders their subsequent appearances as apparitions rather ineffective, particularly as they look as handsome as ghosts as they did alive. If the debauchery shown in the flashbacks is meant to be disturbing (an incongruous sex scene, during which Quint encourages the giggling, cigar-smoking Miles to watch he and Jessel perform, is dismally unshocking), it too fails, feeling forced and poorly performed.
It’s as if director Fywell was so preoccupied with excess, chaffy style and creating a visual sheen of ‘spooky cool’, he forgot the basic constituents of atmosphere and tension. As Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, “they were so busy working out whether they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should”.
Performance-wise, Michelle Dockery, as Ann, thankfully turns in a good central performance, her initial wide-eyed innocence gradually making way for jittery unsettlement and finally culminating in a sort of haunted resignation. Also effective are Sue Johnston as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, who hints at being privy to something unspeakable at Bly without ever making things too tangible, Dan Stevens as the probing psychiatrist, and Nicola Walker as the young maid Carla, who reveals too much of the house’s secrets, to her regret.
The children fare worse, however. Josef Lindsay (Miles) and Eva Sayer (Flora) look every inch the tousled-haired stage school moppets, and are largely unconvincing in their roles, garnering little sympathy. To be fair, this is probably partly down to age and inexperience, but if you compare their acting to the beautifully nuanced performances delivered by Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as the same characters in The Innocents, there’s no comparison.
Ultimately, despite all the interesting allusions in James’ story to possession, Freudianism, and the ambiguity of the governess’ mental state and the ghosts she sees, the primary aim of any adaptation, beyond conveying the book’s interesting subtexts, should be to unsettle and frighten, and sadly this anaemic adaptation fails. It’s rather disappointing that the BBC’s great tradition for showing ghost stories during the festive season – this adaptation was first broadcast just after Christmas 2009 – has come a real cropper here.
Indeed, it’s the fantastic 1970s BBC Christmas adaptations of the short stories of another James, M.R. James, that give a simple indication of what’s wrong with The Turn of the Screw. The former all have a sparse and gloomy 16mm atmosphere, and low budgets ensure they are terrifically economic – artistically speaking – and efficient with their storytelling. They are also wise enough to keep their ethereal spooks half-hidden in the boundaries of mind, vision and shadow.
Rather than watch The Turn of the Screw, if you want to see how effective a small screen period adaptation of supernatural literature can be, I urge you to track down the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas films, or better still, the very rare 1989 feature-length British ITV production of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. If you ever get a chance to see it, do so at night with the lights off. It may be a lower budget affair than The Turn of the Screw, but devoid of the latter’s unnecessary and distracting visual embellishments, The Woman in Black is so solidly constructed and terrifying that I guarantee they’ll be prizing you from the ceiling after you’ve watched it.
Extras on The Turn of the Screw DVD are very basic, consisting of cast filmographies and a picture gallery.