In gothic literature, serving as a governess is a more dangerous occupation than working as a coal-miner or a test pilot. Earnest young Kate would probably call herself a tutor, but close enough. Her new charges are quite a handful, as her predecessor could tell her, even though she’s dead. That should sound a lot like Turn of the Screw, but don’t blame Henry James for the weird deviations in Floria Sigismondi’s mid-1990s-set adaptation-in-spirit titled The Turning, which opens today nationwide.
Kate thinks she will be tutoring Flora, a six-year-old or so poor little rich orphan. So, she is surprised when she suddenly also has her entitled older brother Miles on her hands, after he is mysteriously expelled from his boarding school. The arrogant Miles ill-conceals his hostility for Kate. Flora maintains a sweet and cheerful façade, but there is still something a little off about her too. The ancient housekeeper Mrs. Grose is no help to her either. Nobody tells Kate much of anything, but she still discovers the previous tutor/nanny, Mrs. Jessel, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, most likely involving Peter Quint, a thuggish former servant, who is now also rather ominously deceased.
Right, that’s all very Turn of the Screw, until we reach the messiness of the third act. Screenwriters Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes do not just depart from the original James. They truly waste our time with one of the most annoying gimmicks they could dredge up.
On the plus side, Killruddery House is a wonderfully cinematic location doubling for Bly House. Sigimondi (an unlikely choice for Turning, given she is best known for directing music videos and The Runaways) has a keen eye for visuals and cinematographer David Ungaro (who has a good feel for the gothic, having also lensed Mary Shelley and Compulsion) gives it an appropriately atmospheric look.
The best thing going for The Turning is its distinctive style, but the biggest drawback by far is the underwhelming cast. Both Mackenzie Davis and Finn Wolfhard are problematically dull and uninvolving as Kate and Miles, like they are in a contest to see who can project the least screen presence. Easily, the strongest work comes from Barbara Marten, who is satisfyingly sinister as Mrs. Grose.
Believe it or not, the partial updating to 1994 works rather well, especially since it means no cell phones. Turn of the Screw is so rich and durable, there is always interest in new take on the classic story. However, The Turning constantly tries the audience’s patience with scene after tiring scene of Kate rousing herself from her hallucinatory waking dreams. The way she obstinately endures the kids torments also leads to long-term credibility issues. A disappointment for Turn of the Screw fans, The Turning opens today (1/24) in wide release, including the AMC Empire in New York.