DVD Review: The Turn of the Screw

“The children – strange, shadowy creatures”

Starting in London in 1921 in a hospital for the war wounded, a junior psychiatrist tries to break through with a mentally disturbed patient, a young woman who was previously a governess at a grand house in the country. Thus starts this 2009 television adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw by Sandy Welch and directed by Tim Fywell which relocates the story to a shell-shocked post WWI society.

Michelle Dockery leads the cast as Ann, newly employed to look after the 2 young wards of the Master (Mark Umbers in handsomely brutish form), but soon finds out that neither child is quite as angelic as they first seem. Strange happenings keep on occurring to her and around her and all seems to be linked to the previous woman to hold the position of governess who died in mysterious circumstances along with a manservant from the house, Peter Quint, whose ghostly presence threatens the sanity and safety of all concerned, or so it seems to Ann at least. 

There’s a strong sense of atmosphere, set from Ann’s first arrival at the house with its line of scary maids – Nicola Walker chief amongst them as Carla – and creepy little children always set my hairs on edge, especially when making a seemingly innocuous game of hide and seek into something highly charged, the chanting of nursery rhymes something incredibly eerie. The casting of Sue Johnston as the mysterious housekeeper is inspired as she is someone so identifiable with warm roles, that it feels doubly wrong to have her as such an ambiguous character, initially at least.

But where so much of the power of the story comes from the ambiguity of its whole premise, about whether the ghosts are real or whether they are the product of a fevered mind. And despite its beginnings which suggest otherwise, this adaptation goes a little too far is providing a definitive answer which robs the production of the richness that Henry James surely intended.

And the film loses a touch of its intensity as it moves to an exploratory vein which painstakingly spells out a lot of what is apparently going on. Debunking some of the mystery also robs it of its intrigue, but it does then build up to its dénouement with a genuinely chilling force. Indeed I might even go so far as to say it is quite frightening, especially in the way that it co-opts poor young Miles to unnerving effect.

So something of a mixed bag of an adaptation and possibly a difficult watch for fans of the story. But regardless, I did find it a bit of a spookily effective interpretation and strongly acted.

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