The Turning, the latest adaptation of Henry James’ riveting and still disturbing 1898 novella, The Turn of the Screw, luxuriates in an atmosphere of gothic gloom. For a time, director Floria Sigismondi (The Runaways) and writers Carey and Chad Haynes (of horror projects like The Conjuring) stay faithful to their venerable source material, but ultimately veer off course, leaving viewers perplexed and frustrated.
In telling the story of Kate (here played by Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049), a young woman who becomes governess to two troubled, orphaned children — Flora (Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project) and Miles (Finn Wolfhard, of “Stranger Things” fame) — the film explores torment and trauma as the themes play out in a wealthy but supremely isolated household. Soon after her arrival, Kate starts having unsettling experiences, not least of which is the strangeness of her wards — particularly troublemaker Miles, who returns home after being expelled from his prestigious boarding school. Eventually, things escalate into a full-blown experience of haunting, and Kate becomes afraid for her life and those of the children she’s trying to protect.
As a fan of the novella and the most famous of its film adaptations, 1961’s The Innocents — please, go watch that one instead — I was happy enough with the first two-thirds of The Turning, and I enjoyed the updates to the original story. This version is set in 1994, just after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, an event we’re reminded of several times as a way to explain both why there are no cellphones and how isolation can breed demons. Fresh-faced Kate is more quirky than grungy — a likable, responsible 20-something who feels pulled to leave her teaching job and “make a difference” by working one-on-one with Flora in a remote corner of Maine.
We understand quickly, though, that Kate is really trying to heal her own family trauma, which includes her father’s abandonment and her mother’s mental illness. That mother, Darla (Joely Richardson), isn’t in the original text and her addition here doesn’t do much except act as a stereotypical crazy person, providing fodder for other people to suspect Kate’s own mental health. Oh yeah, and Darla apparently lives in an empty swimming pool, in an insane asylum. Go figure.
Prince and Wolfhard steal the show as the strange, pampered children, particularly Wolfhard, who brings an intensity to Miles, making him seem alternately like a deeply traumatized kid and a darkly sexual young man twisted by terrible role models, tons of money and maybe even possession. Their prideful housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten, of British TV’s “EastEnders”), impedes Kate’s attempts to cozy up to the children with fabulous, icy contempt. And the estate itself is the stuff of gothic dreams, replete with abandoned wings, weird basements, dark forest ponds, creepy dolls, hungry crows and even hedge mazes, all used to spectacular effect.
The Turning goes off the rails when it, um, turns away from the original text, which artfully keeps readers questioning to the very end whether this is a real haunting or the governess’ emerging insanity. These filmmakers unfortunately toss ambiguity aside and do it in the strangest, most hamfisted way possible. The ending left everyone in the audience I saw it with scratching their heads, and not in an “I-can’t-wait-to-talk-about-this-movie-later” kind of way.