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Of all the programmes in this year's Christmas TV schedule, 'A Turn of
the Screw' was the one that I was looking forward to most of all.
Although not explicitly advertised as a "BBC Ghost Story for Christmas"
that is exactly what it was: a BBC - ghost story - at Christmas. And
with top director Tim Fywell at the helm, how could it possibly go
wrong? Well, it did.
Others might like to list all of the myriad small problems with this production but, for me, there were two major faults which rendered it almost unwatchable: firstly, the two child protagonists were neither enchanting nor engaging which made it impossible to sympathise, or care, about their situation. Secondly, the way that the governess either thought that she heard things, or thought that she saw things, almost every second of every scene of her time on screen meant that there was absolutely no build-up of tension or foreboding throughout the whole production. Ultimately, and disappointingly, it ended up being just a very boring and completely unsatisfying ninety minutes.
Once again the true winter chills were to be found on BBC Four this year, with a re-run of the excellent 'Crooked House' and welcome screenings from the real master ghost storyteller - the other Mr. James.
I first read Henry James' chilling ghost story at a young age and have
seen different versions of it both on stage and film and so was very
keen to see this latest version put forward by the BBC in their winter
The key to the story, in my opinion, is the doubt on whose truth here is real. Indeed when I first read the novella in my youth, it never occurred to me that the ghosts weren't "real" and not possibly a figment of an over-emotional young woman's imagination. Re-reads and re-viewings of the piece have brought me round to this, I think, intended more ambivalent (and ultimately satisfying) interpretation so that I was disappointed that that this high-production-value version seemed to cleave so much to the former viewpoint, i.e. that the malevolent spirits were real - this evidenced by the ghosts "appearing" in the imagination, for example of the young doctor who attempts to understand and salve the troubled mind of the disturbed young governess.
Another source of confusion and disappointment was the transposition of events to post-First World War England. If the lead character had been a young man, just back from and possibly their mind affected by the war, then a case for this change of context, could be argued. In every other respect though, the film plays as if in a 19th Century time-line thus throwing the narrative off-kilter. I could also have done without the sub-Lady Chatterley cavortings of both the governess in her imagination with her new employer (who, good looks apart and a self-confessed seducer of previous servants and governesses), hardly seems able to be responsible for her graphic fantasising, as well as the crudely physical liaison that the phantoms Quint and Jessell portray.
The film takes this shock-Gothic outlook to extremes with scenes suggesting the actual possession of the children by their malefactors but it's all done in a very sub-"The Exorcist" way and in the end I felt it wrong to come down so conclusively on the side of the demons.
The acting was mixed in quality, the children unable to portray the duality of their personalities convincingly and the actor playing Quint lacking menace entirely. However, Michelle Dockery, as the stricken governess, was convincing in both appearance and conviction, with the omnipresent Sue Johnston a sympathetic foil as the bemused house-matron.
There were some scares deftly inserted along the way, punctuated effectively by well-crafted background music, but as I said earlier, the modernising of the story to include the nudity and violence depicted here, overpowered, to me anyway, the thin line between fantasy and reality that served the original book so well.
A great story, lost somewhat in this particular re-telling.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This filmed version of James' novella is a travesty. It begins with the
conceit of the insane asylum, in which the Governess is an inmate, as
if this were an acceptable or even clever way to evoke the issue of her
The shots and cuts seem to be meant to reinforce this simplistic kind of ambiguity, certainly with none of the subtlety of James' work, and sometimes even to opposite effects, and often garishly. For example, when the Governess first arrives at Bly, she is greeted by the staff. The camera pans over their faces and cuts to close-ups of especially sour-looking expressions in order to make us wonder whether this is really such a nice place, or perhaps that some of these unhappy people may wish her harm.
To get at the latent sexuality of the text, this filmed version relies on a piece of lingerie, flashbacks of Quint atop Jessel in bed, and the Governess' fantasies of her and the uncle in various hackneyed romantic gestures.
Mrs. Grose's rosy, innocent, and reliable sympathy with the Governess in the novel has been eradicated here and replaced with her somewhat cold rejection of the Governess' claims to have seen Quint and Jessel.
There's more. The music has been expediently installed to cue the intended emotional responses. The dialogue and characterizations, with their overwrought emotion, are both anachronistic and unconvincing, and get worse as the film wears on, ending with the children's swearing at the Governess, a device that's just plain tacky, and Miles' pummeling Flora, slapping her face and calling her the b-word before he dunks her head into the water of the lake. This is how the filmmakers attempt to answer the question, What harm might Quint and Jessel intend for the children? Why, to make the children into likenesses of themselves of course! Hence, at the end, Miles kisses the Governess passionately, while the image of the actor who plays Quint is superimposed over him.
It's not clear to me why so much of what's produced for television is so poorly done. If the producers and directors are dumbing their work down for wider audiences, then they ought to give us more credit. If they themselves are such poor interpreters of literature, then they should be given other projects, or discharged. Or haunted by Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, and Henry James himself!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I can only add to the only other review here (with which I completely
agree), that this is a sad waste of time, talent and money.
How so much effort resulted in a trivial and virtually inept outcome is beyond me. Didn't the writer read the book?
Having read the novel when I was 7 or so (I was quite quick to pick up on great literature), then this fiasco of an adaptation was a massive disappointment.
My major gripes are as follows: 1. The music is great, but completely out of context. Shut those violins up, please! 2. The acting on the whole is wooden, stilted and annoying. The housekeeper gave the only performance of note.
3. Don't mess with Henry James's whole point of the novel, changing it (I assume) to target a younger audience who have the attention span of a goldfish.
Ach. It was simply rubbish.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I agree with all of the previous four reviews here. Like another
reviewer, I have been looking forwards to seeing this - absolutely LOVE
'The Innocents' and was curious as to how a contemporary film maker
would interpret this. It aired as part of Christmas / New Year viewing
in Australia on Foxtel's UK Channel.
Where to begin??
Thought there was trouble brewing when it began in the asylum. Straight away the audience is given 'markers' as to how we are to interpret or 'read' this television film. To me, the story's power is it's AMBIGUITY! Immediately, this is undercut.
Okay, they have decided to swap the setting to 1922 rather than Victorian England. Was willing to play along and give the film makers the benefit of the doubt, but alarm bells are going off. After all, Gothic and 19th Century England just go so beautifully don't they?! Quite apart from the fact that this is the historical period in which the novel is set. I have no problem with films and television programmes providing viewers with fresh contexts, but swapping the historical period was always going to be difficult.
But no matter, I persevered. What really REALLY annoyed me - in no particular order:
SPELLING EVERYTHING OUT. You know those B grade made for television (often Hallmark) films where the characters are given ridiculous lines of dialogue telling you everything - in case you might get to use your imagination and try to work something out for yourself? Well, you will recognise this modus operandi here.
The sinister mysterious figure of the male that the governess 'sees' - transformed into a panto villain who keeps doing the 'HA HA HA!!!!' laugh. Spare us. Not scary, just irritating.
The 'oh look at ye governess, she be havin' sexual fantasies about Master' scenes. What makes the original story so effective is the general repression of the Victorian era. The style of Gothic in literature has been interpreted as a way to express that which was repressed in the Victorian era. For example: see 'Wuthering Heights' amongst others. All feature violent, sexual, usually dark haired men - (Heathcliffe is a classic). The viewer should never be completely sure of how the governess is feeling about the male characters. This is about repression, not telling.
That ancient gravestone when the Governess and the Housekeeper (Oh Sue Johnston - I love your work, but how in God's name did you get involved in this?) are supposed to be looking at the previous Governesses gravestone. She is only meant to have died recently and this gravestone looks like it's been there for centuries. A small goof perhaps, but this nicely sums up the general sloppiness.
The poor child actors - pity them. They have no idea what is going on here at all. Suspect they were turning up for work in Studio 1 for a new version of 'Village of the Damned' but walked into Studio 2 by mistake, ending up in this.
If you want to see an evocative version of this story, go and find a copy of 'The Innocents' - watch it a couple of times and see how your idea of just what happened in this house continually changes. It opens up interpretation rather than shut it down and spell it out. It will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. This dogs dinner on the other hand will make you wonder why you bothered.
It is a great adaptation. It was the best of the two versions I have seen. It is very simple to understand and truly well made with a beautiful setting. I highly recommend it if you like a good and scary tale. Surprised why the other ratings were so low. I watched it at 6 a.m. in the morning, and it made my day. The actors are great. The ending was cool. The piano pieces in that movie were nice. The most attractive thing about this movie is simply the setting. The scary scenes were exciting and dark. I soundtrack is also great. It is a suspenseful movie which keeps you at the edge of your seat. I was very excited for the ending, and it did not disappoint me. I liked so much that I might read the book too. I think it would have been the best Christmas present in 2009.
I like ghost stories as much as the next person. Turn of the Screw had
all the components for at least a watchable 90 minutes, as its source
material is so good, so suspenseful and so delightfully ambiguous. What
a disappointment. Even on its own terms, Turn of the Screw was close to
disastrous. In fact, the only redeeming quality was the excellent Sue
Johnston, she is very believable as the sympathetic foil.
If you want a great adaptation or film of the story/book, look no further than The Innocents with Deborah Kerr, a terrifying and unforgettable film that succeeds on its own merits too. This version of Turn of the Screw is a poor adaptation of the story, the atmosphere was empty and dull, also the ambiguity that made the story so unnerving is dumbed down. The dialogue is also very stilted, and doesn't flow very well from one scene to the next, while the story starts off well but becomes a series of disconnected scenes. The pace is another problem too, like the atmosphere it is uninteresting and profoundly empty.
The production values didn't do much for me either. The photography was good, as was the scenery and house, but the costumes felt like they came from another period. The music is nothing memorable, probably the most memorable moment of sitting through this was my dad saying "somebody crucify those violins!" Though amusing at the time, I see his point, they were very shrill and overbearing. The acting was poor. Johnston was very good though, but Michelle Dockery no matter how hard she tries looks too modern and any genuine fright she tries to convey feels forced. The children fare no better, the characters are written so poorly that I had trouble engaging with them and their situation.
So all in all, a big disappointment. Back in 2009, like the other reviewers here(all of whom I agree with completely), I was looking forward to this more than any other programme(even more so than Cranford and Poirot actually, to be honest both were much better too), but like 2010's Whistle and I'll Come to You it was the biggest disappointment of the festive season. 2/10 for Sue Johnston. Bethany Cox
I hated the 20's costumes, this just NEEDS the fancy Victorian
clothing! Also, automobiles? Stupid frame story? And using Voice Of The
Legion, one of the worst horror tropes? No match to The Innocents -
that was perfectly creepy and beautiful (Miles could have been
prettier, but otherwise everything as it should be).
Here? Meh. Adding random new characters was unnecessary.
Music - can't even recall it. Go for the opera if you want the REAL music of this, also, Britten understood a lot more than this movie's director. It was not just about *possessing* children. It was more, at least in the case of Quint/Miles.
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