There’s a new movie version of Henry James’ memorable 1898 novel, “The Turn of the Screw.” While the movie, “The Turning,” doesn’t follow the James story in every detail, viewers may wonder if it isn’t too close to the original in its ambiguity.
“The Turning” begins with elementary school teacher Kate (played by Mackenzie Davis, who made an impression in last year’s “Terminator” movie). She explains to her roommate that she has accepted a job as the live-in teacher of Flora, a rich seven-year-old whose home is a Gothic mansion isolated on a huge wooded park.
On her way to her new job, Kate stops off to visit her mother (Joely Richardson) who is living in a mental hospital. The patient spends her time painting in what was once an indoor swimming pool. This is the first of many ponds, pools, tubs and other bodies of water the movie will take us to.
Little Flora is bright-eyed but reportedly troubled. She saw the car accident in which her parents were killed. Since then, we find out, her last teacher and a “brute” of a gardener, Quint, have disappeared from her world — the former may have left the grounds, but the latter reportedly is dead. Still, the girl is happy enough to take Kate through the huge maze and down to see the horses.
The house is kept by Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten, who is scary to look at and severe in her behavior here). Soon, Flora’s adolescent, drum-beating brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard, who we know from “Stranger Things,” the “It” movies, “The Goldfinch” and so on) returns to the house.
He has been expelled from his boarding school after having thoroughly throttled another boy. Kate has no one to pass this information on to — in the novel, the children’s guardian is an uncle who lives in the city and doesn’t want to be bothered with information about his young relations.
Odd things have already begun to happen at the great house. There is a wing of it that Flora never goes into. Kate has nightmares that are increasingly horrifying if still oblique. And the governess begins seeing female bodies in water and, in mirrors and windows, the face of a man she identifies as Quint.
Mrs. Grose makes slighting remarks about Kate’s ability to take control of the children. The housekeeper also mentions that Quint seemed to take command of Kate’s predecessor.
Kate awakens from nightmares. She feels a detached hand scuttling about her person. Then, she receives a series of nearly black paintings, mailed to her by her mother. These prefigure events we will see. At the time of their arrival at the house, Mrs. Grose suggests that insanity may be genetic.
The scary images come faster and faster. Kate tries a second time to drive Flora away from the apparently haunted scene. The illusion, if it is an illusion, of the now departed previous teacher becomes increasingly corporeal.
There is no saying the ghostly woman’s name to release Flora from her. Instead, the children seem to part company with Kate late in the film. This is different from the suggestion in the novel.
A reading of James’ story will leave the reader wondering what exactly has happened, which of the events are real and which dreams, and what exactly is the state of Kate’s sanity. Perhaps because events in the book don’t jump out and yell “Boo!,” we remember it more for its atmosphere than we will remember this murky cinematic version of the story.