If you read my piece on The Innocents from last October, then you know that I’m a pretty big fan of both Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw as well as Jack Clayton’s timeless 1961 adaptation, which means that I am the prime audience for Floria Sigismondi’s new take on this classic tale, The Turning. And for the most part, I really enjoyed what Sigismondi as well as screenwriters Carey and Chad Hayes were able to bring to the table here, with Floria’s visual flair adding a lot to the material, and a trio of strong performances from the film’s lead actors: Mackenzie Davis, Brooklynn Prince, and Finn Wolfhard.
Where The Turning ended up falling a bit short for me was in its finale, where the pieces of the narrative’s puzzle don’t quite all lock together in the film’s final moments. But overall, there’s still a lot to enjoy about Sigismondi’s adaptation.
If you’ve read The Turn of the Screw or you’ve seen The Innocents or any of the other film adaptations of James’ story, the setup in The Turning is pretty much what you’d expect, except that Sigismondi transplants this perennial tale to the 1990s, where we are introduced to Kate (Davis), who has just been hired as a governess to look after a young girl named Flora (Prince), who lives in an isolated estate alone with her housekeeper (Barbara Marten) after her parents were killed in a tragic accident. When Kate arrives at the house, she immediately connects with the precocious Flora, but the unexpected arrival of her moody teenaged brother Miles (Wolfhard) causes tensions to rise, especially once Kate begins to believe that there are sinister forces at work, ones that are trying to push her over the edge, both literally and figuratively.
As someone who is pretty well-versed with James’ original story as well as The Innocents and a few other adaptations, including The Nightcomers, a prequel of sorts which shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, it was interesting to see what Sigismondi as well as the Hayes brothers decided to change up in this iteration, as for the most part, it works exceedingly in favor of their vision. One of the biggest changes is the fact that the children here are aged up a bit, which helps shift the dynamic between Kate and the kids in a different way, versus other adaptations we’ve seen before.
There’s a bit more animosity in The Turning between the governess and Mrs. Grose the housekeeper as well, which only heightens the pressure that Kate is feeling as she tries to find her footing in her new position in these unfamiliar surroundings. The children’s uncle is also a non-factor here, which I thought was interesting considering how much of a catalyst he had been in previous versions. Additionally, we had only been given a sense of the governess’ background in both James’ original novella and The Innocents from the character herself, but in The Turning, Sigismondi allows us a very definitive peek into Kate’s world and the emotional baggage that her character is carrying with her into her new position, particularly when it comes to Kate’s strained relationship with her mother (played by Joely Richardson), who lives in a mental health facility. The backstory and relationship between the previous caretaker, Quint (Niall Greig Fulton), and Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) is also very different in The Turning, with the reveal of some old naughty Polaroids that Quint had tucked away giving off some serious Uncle Frank in Hellraiser vibes.
As far as the performances go, everyone in The Turning delivers top-notch work, particularly Davis, whose transformation from kind-hearted optimist into a woman teetering on the brink of madness is endlessly compelling to watch. Wolfhard upholds the new tradition of “kids from IT moving on to diabolical teen roles” very well (Jaeden Martell also does it in The Lodge), as Miles is so frustratingly snotty (in a good way, mind you), that I often felt my own blood pressure rising any time his character would challenge Kate’s authority.
In terms of the craftsmanship in The Turning, there’s a lot to love here as well. The locale in Ireland was absolutely breathtaking and eerie all at once, with production designer Paki Smith doing the dark lord’s work by adding in so many dubious little details throughout the house, which was something I really appreciated. David Ungaro’s cinematography is excellent, giving us a visual representation of Kate’s steady decline throughout The Turning by trading in bright, bold colors for a desaturated and cool palette towards the film’s climax.
That being said, the real heartbreak of The Turning for me was the final moments of Sigismondi’s adaptation, as it is something of a departure from what you might be expecting if you’ve ever read James’ original story or seen any of the film iterations. I can’t speak to specifically about why it bothers me, as it would be extremely spoilerish, but what I can say is that it’s no secret that the power of the story of The Turn of the Screw is in the ambiguity of the governess’ mental state, and the way The Turning wraps up almost strips away the power that lies in the original story with a weird, sort of abrupt narrative shrug. Everything up until that point was aces in my book, though, and I’m sure there are others out there who might respond to the ending differently.
As a whole, though, I think there’s still a lot to appreciate from the way Sigismondi immerses us in this twisted little world of The Turning, and if nothing else, it’s still worth seeing for those of you who are fans of this story, or the extremely talented ensemble at work here as well.
Movie Score: 2.5/5