Part of what makes a classic story a “classic” is timelessness. If it’s material that an audience can understand and connect with regardless of how long it’s been around, and no matter how the setting is altered, it has the potential to be appreciated forever. Henry James’ novella The Turn Of The Screw is a wonderful example, and director Floria Sigismondi’s new adaptation, The Turning, is an impressive exercise in showcasing its agelessness and impressiveness.
It’s anchored by a trio of great performances from its lead and main supporting stars, but more importantly fully connects with the great strength of the original book, which is its powerful ambiguity. Dissecting and examining it is half the fun, as The Turning makes you question the perspective of the storytelling and the boundaries of the world’s reality.
Moving the setting up to be approximately 100 years after the release of the novel, the story takes place in 1994 (initially signified by television news about the funeral for Kurt Cobain) and centers on Kate (Mackenzie Davis), a teacher who is invited to leave the chaotic public school system behind and serve as the governess at a remote estate. The position primarily sees that she educate and take care of a young orphan named Flora (Brooklynn Prince), and while she expresses some initial hesitance about the job, she eventually agrees, and following a visit to her mentally ill and hospitalized mother (Joely Richardson) she departs for the house known as Bly Manor.
Kate’s arrival at the estate is followed by a meeting with the primary caretaker, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), and the cute-but-guileful Flora, and she quickly gets to know the grounds – being a bit disturbed by the story of the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) and her quick and mysterious departure. The peace is disturbed, however, by the surprise arrival of Flora’s older brother, Miles (Finn Wolfhard), who has been expelled from his private school, and is immediately hostile towards Kate in her authoritative position. The sibling’s presence adds palpable tension to the household, but making things far worse are the haunting visages that begin to plague the protagonist.
The Turning effectively plays a cat and mouse game, making you question what’s real.
With some exception, The Turning is almost exclusively set within the property lines of Bly Manor once Kate arrives, creating a very intimate atmosphere – and it’s one that Floria Sigismondi and writers Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes play with successfully. It’s very much structured as a “decent into madness” story, as Kate is terrified by apparitions, leading to sleeplessness, leading to exhaustion and extreme paranoia, and all along the way you are meant to question how it’s making an impact on what we are seeing as a viewer.
The boundlessness of fiction makes anything possible, and throughout The Turning is peppered with evidence that suggest a variety of answers. Are the ghosts real, or are they just in Kate’s head? Are the children responsible for what’s happening, or are they totally innocent? The movie keeps you guessing each step of the way, and while there are firm conclusions that one can render from the ending, it’s also still fascinating to examine the entirety of it through multiple lenses.
Mackenzie Davis delivers another fantastic performance, and Finn Wolfhard and Brooklynn Prince are great.
Because of the aforementioned intimacy in the setting, as well as a greater stress on details that come from the mystery, the performances by the actors playing the three main characters are incredibly important – but The Turning made a smart move by hiring three incredibly talented people to play the roles. Mackenzie Davis, who just delivered an excellent-if-underappreciated turn in Terminator: Dark Fate this past fall, is really tremendous, and does a really wonderful job metering Kate’s deteriorating mental state, and the empathy you feel for her leads you also to be scared for her.
Genre-wise, you might think that this is simply bread-and-butter stuff for IT and Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard, but Miles really is a totally different character than Richie Tozier or Mike Wheeler, and Wolfhard’s work is impressive. As an obstinate teen who gets a kick out of rebellion, he has a sharp edge to him, and it makes him scary. He does express a softer side when he is with Flora, as Brooklynn Prince is precious and sweet – but even she has a sinister nature about her that comes out as mischievousness.
The Turning isn’t exactly “Scary,” but it definitely is spooky.
For her part, Floria Sigismondi most certainly knows how to disturb an audience, as her resume quite notably features the notorious music video for Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” but The Turning isn’t overly concerned with forcing you to jump out of your seat and yelp. When it comes to the line that separates “horror” and “terror,” the film definitely leans in the latter direction, choosing to try and get under your skin and into the folds of your brain over big emotional and visceral reactions. It speaks to a specific type of scary movie fan, specifically the kind that dig just living in a creepy vibe, but for those people it satisfies.
The Turning ultimately won’t have the lasting impact of Henry James’ The Turn Of The Screw, and won’t ever be hailed as a timeless classic – but it’s definitely a solid adaptation of a timeless classic, and that has value. It’s a spooky and entertaining diversion elevated by some great performances, and certainly worth experiencing along with an engaged crowd.
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