Reviewer: Charity Bishop
One of the most famous literary ghost stories is this novel by Henry James, an ambiguous story that hinges on whether or not its main character, a governess, is insane or in earnest about the happenings in a sinister great old house. This Christmas adaptation by the BBC is true to the story in particulars but not in all the nuances.
Even though he has been encouraged to turn his attention to other patients in the asylum, Dr. Fisher (Dan Stephens) cannot help but be intrigued by the mysterious Ann (Michelle Dockery). The barest details of the incident that brought her to them are known but he wishes to have the full story in her own words and begins to coax it out of her during their daily therapy sessions. Hired as a governess by a distant and uninterested man in care of his two wards, Ann's introduction to the manor were without consequence. It does not take her long to settle in with the occupants, even if the eerie surroundings encourage her vivid imagination to be suspicious of every creak and rattle. Her current responsibility is to act as a governess to Flora (Eva Sayer) while her brother Miles (Josef Lindsay ) is away at school -- but then an obscurely worded letter arrives announcing that he has been expelled and the school does not wish him to come back again. He seems an amiable child but Ann suspects there is more to his nature than meets the eye... and is further unnerved through a series of sinister incidents and sightings that cause her to become aware of the tragic history of the house and its former members of staff.
The housekeeper (Sue Johnson) assures her that there are no such things as ghosts, but one of the kitchen maids believes otherwise -- she is convinced that the vengeful spirit of the master's footman has returned to conjure up evil, and in doing so, employ the children to his diabolical ends. The response to this latest adaptation has been varied; it is enjoyable but many complain that it takes the subtleties of the book and outlines them much too clearly, in a sense dumbing down the story for the audience. The novel is ambiguous in the sense that the reader does not know whether Ann was truly dealing with ghosts or if she was quite mad and allowed the gothic nature of the house to drive her over the deep end. Here, the story infers through various storytelling techniques that the former is true, and she really is confronted with malevolent spirits. While certain aspects of this production did not sit well with me (mostly pertaining to the explicit nature of the flashbacks), I thought the story was decently conveyed and did not mind bringing it forward from the Victorian era. The costuming and atmosphere are lovely, although the camerawork does often rely on tricks to manipulate the audience -- and the music does it as well, adding a sense of ominous when it was not needed. We know we are being toyed with and for the most part it works to great effect, helped along with lovely acting and cleverness in the cutting room.
I will say one thing for it -- this film is downright creepy, with an ominous sense building throughout. The cast is also quite good -- it was fun to see Dockery turn in a more emotional performance than we usually see from her, and young Josef Lindsay is convincing as a child whom you do not know whether to trust or to fear. Problematic content does surface both in the ongoing theme of the story and in unexpected sexual material. We learn through a maid that the former valet of the house was an abusive rapist who conducted an affair with the last governess; we see his slapping around female members of staff, once kicking a girl down the stairs, another time bursting into a room and forcing a woman onto a bed. He and the governess are shown passionately kissing in a corridor, darting into her room, rolling around on the lawn (he puts his hand between her legs, up her skirt)... and in bed together, with movement and nudity. More of this scene is shown later on. Ann has hallucinations and/or fantasies about the master of the house (he comes into her room and kisses her; in another scene he transforms into the valet). A child slaps another hard across the face and knocks them to the ground; we see a man do the same thing to a woman. He then dunks her head into the pond and holds her under. A woman slaps a man numerous times and he starts to struggle with her. We see people that have fallen to their deaths (some blood).
The supernatural is ever-present, with one of the early lines being that Ann has seen the devil. She talks about her hatred of her minister father and his assertion that they are to be warriors against evil, a role she undertakes in the house. Ghostly figures come and go, popping up in the background or rapping at windows and menacing the main characters. It is implied they are responsible for multiple deaths. More troubling, the children are possessed by them on numerous occasions -- adopting multiple voices and dark behavior. It is unusual that in spite of all the concern over the presence of ghosts, God is not much mentioned and certainly never employed to defeat them (instead, the children must name the ghost and command him or her to leave). While possessed, the children call Ann all number of foul names -- whore, b**ch, and "damn her to hell."
While ghost stories tend to be a little too creepy for my taste in general, I will admit that I liked this adaptation more than an earlier version I saw of it, in part because the atmosphere is so wonderful and Dockery does a brilliant job of descending into full-blown "madness." I just wish more restraint had been used. The original story has an undercurrent that is dark and disturbing enough without translating in a graphic fashion to the screen. In my opinion, the sexual content detracted from the sinister original qualities of the storyline.