‘The Turning’ screws up Henry James
The January doldrums continue with The Turning, an atmospheric but half-baked adaptation of the classic 1898 Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. Not helping matters any is that the earlier screen adaptation, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), is considered a classic in its medium. If nothing else, the stature of The Innocents just went up a few notches.
Given how few remakes equal—much less surpass— earlier versions is, to some, an unfair assessment of an individual work. Nevertheless, one need only consider the latest screen version of Little Women. However it compares to earlier versions, it is still a worthy and inspired adaptation. The Turning, even taken in its own (meager) terms, is neither. If you’re going to take on a classic, aim high. The makers of The Turning do just the opposite.
Mackenzie Davis, fresh from her hi-tech travails in Terminator: Dark Fate, finds herself in no less threatening circumstances here as Kate, the nanny newly hired to tend orphans Flora (Brooklynn Prince) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard), who live in a sprawling mansion with the vaguely imperious housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), who refers to them as “thoroughbreds.”
After last year’s Ready or Not and Knives Out, it’s nice that scary country mansions seem to be making a big-screen comeback, and cinematographer David Ungaro’s cameras take full advantage, prowling the house and grounds in suitably spooky fashion.
It’s not long before Kate begins seeing and hearing strange things, which may either be the result of a genuine haunting or her own neuroses. It’s this pivotal aspect of the story that the film fails to fully exploit, thereby making The Turning less than it could, and by all rights should, have been.
Actually, the actors aren’t really at fault, being at the mercy of a muddled screenplay by Chris and Chad W. Hayes (twin siblings), whose previous credits may include such duds as the 2005 version House of Wax – in which the scariest thing may have been Paris Hilton’s performance – and The Reaping (2007), but also such successful efforts as The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016).
This marks the second feature of director Floria Sigismondi, who may a respectable feature debut with The Runaways (2010) but has since toiled in television (American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale). The concept of the “sophomore jinx” is enforced with a vengeance here.
The Turning feels like a film made by people who know the conventions and trappings of genre but have no faith in them, which is plainly, and painfully evident in a hackneyed, insipid twist ending that indicates the filmmakers had absolutely no idea how to conclude the narrative. Ambiguity is one thing, incomprehensibility is quite another.
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