2020, PG-13, 94 min. Directed by Floria Sigismondi. Starring Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Niall Greig Fulton, Denna Thomsen, Joely Richardson, Barbara Marten.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 31, 2020
If a story has been adapted 30 times for the screen, it's pretty essential that anyone going for version 31 have something truly special lined up to avoid redundancy. It is undeniably hard to forget The Turning, the latest adaptation of Henry James' classic eerie novella The Turn of the Screw, but it's all the wrong reasons.
It is truly rare to watch a film implode in the final 20 minutes as completely and gallingly as this retelling by director Floria Sigismondi and screenwriting siblings Chad and Carey Hayes. However, they made an astounding number of errors along the way.
That's quite an achievement, since James' slow-burn psychosupernatural horror is a screenwriter's dream – thus the huge number of adaptations. A young governess called Kate (in this case Davis, whose character arc is basically "wears more pale makeup") is sent to care for a pair of aristocratic orphans, Miles and Flora (Wolfhard and Prince). However she soon discovers that the spirits of two earlier servants – brutish stable master Quint (Fulton) and the last governess, Miss Jessel (Thomsen) – may still cast a long shadow. It's so easy, so how does The Turning screw it up so badly?
Part of the problem is the Hayes twins. Having cut their teeth on the First Daughter trilogy, they've become a cornerstone of James Wan's Conjuringverse, and that soon becomes clear through the tedious torrent of jump scares that drown the opening act. It's not just that their script and Sigismondi's direction has neither the subtlety nor impending gloom of James' story: it's that there's no texture at all. Sigismondi last film music biopic The Runaways similarly had some fascinating moments, but it also had the same lack of drive and verve. Plus, can anyone explain any good reason why the story was moved from its original fin de siècle setting and instead became a period piece set in 1994? It's just one of many components that seem like they're supposed to carry some meaning or symbolism or weight, like the mansion's maze or the horses, and then have no real pay-off. Meanwhile both Barbara Marten's wizened housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and Joely Richardson's histrionic performance as Kate's mentally ill mother are cardboard stock characters – a sin in a story that demands inner lives for all the players.
Even before what is (and I can barely stress this enough) the most incompetent end to a major studio film in years, The Turning makes narrative leaps that lead to disjointed characters. The script also makes a key change to the ghosts - turning Jessel into Quint's victim, not his malevolent equal - that strips away part of what was so powerful and unique about the original and instead replaces it with a trope that was worn out when What Lies Beneath pulled the same trick 20 years ago.
If there's any redemption here, it's in the children. Prince's Flora is more than simply a cherubic child, instead carrying at least the hints of the damage of being an orphan. Yet it's Wolfhard who comes closest to conveying the shadowy divisions of the story, of the innocent Miles and the one under Quint's sway. Flickering between lost innocence and surly menace, under an out-of-control mop of hair that makes him look like a sinister Marc Bolan, at least he seems to key into the material. Everyone else should have gone back and read the damn book again.