The Turn of the Screw (1999)


One of the most disturbing films I've ever encountered is this adaptation of Henry James' supernatural novel about good and evil. It's a masterful film full of chilling images and memorable dialogue but deep down has no truly central pivot. Many of the actions are premature and conclusions are leapt to far too easily. The acting is superb but the ending is morbidly tragic and fails to clear up any of the earlier mysteries, such as whether madness has entered the house, the governess is dealing with truly demonic forces, or what became of them all. It is worthwhile and fascinating until the final two minutes in which everything we trust is turned on its head, leaving us with only stunned horror. There's not to say a hearty presence of spine-chilling twists, or that Jodhi May isn't beautifully repressed, but there's something disturbing about it on all counts.


The master of the manor (Colin Firth in a momentary but sexually-charged role) is searching for a new governess to tend his niece and nephew in their country estate. The boy, Miles, is off at school but will need tending through the summer months, and his sister Flora requires constant supervision. There have been several inquiries but none so remarkable as that of Miss (Jodhi May, in an untitled role). All other governesses have balked at his abnormal request... that he never be contacted. No complaints, compliments, news, or inquiries. Once she moves into the country house, everything pertaining to the children and care of the estate is her affair. He will pay the bills, she will assume all responsibilities. Charmed by his subtle persuasions, the woman agrees. She soon journeys into the majestic moors to a house full of sunlit rooms and cheerful servants. Flora (Grace Robinson) is an angelic child, good-tempered and always kind.


The housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Pam Ferris) assures her Miles is the same... but a letter of expulsion from his school implies otherwise. Headmaster makes no specifics but says they decline accepting the boy back after the summer. Believing Miles may be corrupting the other children in some way, she takes a particular interest upon him at his return. There is something distinctly abnormal about the ten-year-old. He speaks like an adult. He has read Hamlet, Macbeth, and other works of Shakespeare. His ability at mastering mathematics, the piano, and science are well beyond a child twice his age. Most of the time he is indecently perfect, always learning his lessons, treating his sister with respect, and calling her "dear." The notion there is something demonic about him only increases when the governess observes a strange man on the tower roof, and learns from Mrs. Grose that he is the ghost of the master's former valet, Peter Quint (Jason Salkey). He had an abnormally close relationship with the boy during his life and also with the deceased former governess Miss Jessel (Caroline Pegg).


Governess becomes convinced that both ghosts are attempting to manipulate and control the children to the point of demonic obsession, and vows to protect them by inserting herself between these hostile supernatural beings and innocents. But then, are the children really so innocent? They are well behaved much of the time, as Miles states with creepy pleasure, but could be very bad indeed if they chose to be. The housekeeper is unable to see the ghosts, even when they stand directly before her, but the governess is convinced the children are aware of their presence. Are they truly there, haunting the manor, or is it all some horrible figment of her deranged imagination? What follows is two hours of creepy corridors, vapid ghost sightings, meaningful dialogue, and beautifully cherub child expressions. It's odd, but the scariest scenes haven't a ghost in sight -- they're between Miles and his governess, whether he's contentedly playing Bach at the piano or glowering at her from a corner. The white figure of Miss Jessel appears in some scenes, but Peter Quint is much more threatening -- and brave, coming to her in broad daylight.


Actual content issues are mild with only one profanity and the accidental smothering of a character (mild dialogue also implies a girl killed herself due to an unwanted pregnancy), but psychological and spiritual issues are much more a problem. There have been many college papers written on this novel talking about the Governess' plight and whether or not it was a mental breakdown of sexual psychology. If she was in fact mad, or there were actually ghosts in the manor. There's also mild sexual tension not only between the Master and Governess (Colin Firth carries it off extremely well), but also Miles and the Governess. He often addresses her as one might a lover, which leads her to form dark conclusions. There's an ambiguous presence of Christianity interwoven into the piece, as the characters attend church on numerous occasions, the Governess prays for intervention, and children agree to recite their prayers. The most daunting aspect is the subtle allegorical conclusion, which implies that it may be better to live with evil than to attempt to smother it with good, for in dispelling evil from your life you can bring an end to all happiness.


For viewers willing to discuss its psychological points with an open mind, and open to having the hairs raised on the back of their neck, The Turn of the Screw is a fascinating albeit morbid production with stupendous acting, eerie corridors, ghostly figures, and interesting cameos. It's quite probably one of the most frightening Victorian thrillers ever written, but also leaves the viewer with a definite sense of unease.   

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