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‘The Turning’ screws up a classic

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Adapting a literary classic for film is always a fraught proposition. Making the transition from page to screen is a delicate, tricky process. Sometimes, it is wildly successful and we get a film that not only represents the source material, but transcends it, becoming a classic in its own right.

Other times, we get “The Turning.”

Based on the 1898 Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw,” this film is intended to be a modern update of that classic Gothic ghost story. A tale of psychological intrigue, it’s an atmospheric and insular work, one that relies heavily on the creepiness inherent to its setting and circumstances for its fright factor. It is a slow-moving, slow-developing work; the glacial nature of its pacing can present a challenge to a reader.

Now imagine that same glacial pacing unfolding on screen. It simply doesn’t play, despite the best efforts of those involved. But there are only so many rea/not-real jump scares that we can take before it all starts to blend together into rote repetition. And that’s all we get from director Floria Sigismondi, working from a screenplay by twin brother writing team Carey and Chad Hayes. It’s a meandering, unfocused ramble that doesn’t seem to understand what made the original work scary in the first place.

Kate Mandell (Mackenzie Davis, “Terminator: Dark Fate”) is a young teacher looking for a change. She’s selected for an opportunity – an invitation to work as a private tutor/governess for a young girl who lost her parents in an accident. Despite some misgivings – including worries about leaving behind her institutionalized mother (Joely Richardson, “Color Out of Space”) – she accepts the job.

She makes her way to the Fairchild Estate, where she meets Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten, TV’s “Sanctuary”), the housekeeper. Grose tells Kate that the children are special and have never known a life without privilege. Kate meets her charge – a sweet little girl named Flora (Brooklynn Prince, “The Angry Birds Movie 2”) – and begins to settle in to her new home.

It isn’t long, however, before things start to get … uncomfortable. Fairchild Manor is a place of many secrets – secrets that some people would rather keep locked away. It only gets more complicated when Flora’s older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard, “It Chapter Two”) shows up unexpectedly – he’s been kicked out of prep school due to some unsavory and violent outbursts.

Kate begins to suspect that there is something else present in the house – something sinister that is influencing the behavior of the Fairchild children. She starts to see things that she can’t explain and experience things that she can’t understand – things that she’s not entirely sure are even real.

But there are many kinds of ghosts … and many ways in which a person can be haunted. Unfortunately, in “The Turning” all those ways are uninteresting, contrived and inescapably dull.

The reality is that the Henry James original borders on the boring already – it relies A LOT on the unsettling atmosphere it creates to build its sense of dread. It’s only the prosaic gifts of James that keep the novella from becoming a bit of a slog – and one could argue that even his gifted pen fails to maintain sufficiently engaging storytelling.

Alas, while the James twins have demonstrated an aptitude for horror writing – they wrote the first two “Conjuring” movies, which are solid offerings – they don’t appear to have what it takes to successfully translate the leisurely source material into an effective cinematic narrative. The result is a movie that can’t overcome the simple reality that not a lot actually HAPPENS in this story.

Sigismondi is a relatively inexperienced director … and her inexperience shows. That’s not to say she’s an untalented filmmaker – quite the opposite, actually. There’s enough here to illustrate some real ability, particularly in the aesthetic choices. But too often, the narrative feels like little more than watch-checking until the next jump scare set piece. “The Turn of the Screw” is a psychological study in ambiguity, and too much of the nuance is lost here, resulting in a film that will likely leave you simply waiting for it to be over.

Davis does her best, but the circumstances don’t do her any favors; we spend far too much time watching her be afraid and make bad decisions. Her motivations don’t really make sense and her interactions are inconsistent. She’s game, but there’s nothing really there. Wolfhard is in the conversation as one of the best young actors currently working, but he’s kind of wasted here. He tries to make some interesting stuff happen, but he too is undermined by the glacial narrative pace. Prince is sweet when she needs to be sweet and creepy when she needs to be creepy; it’s actually a strong performance for such a young actor. Marten is basically a plot device, but she’s OK as far as what she’s been given. Ditto Richardson, who’s wasted in an inessential role.

“The Turning” is typical of the horror fare found in this spot on the calendar, a film that plainly deserves to see a release into the frozen tundra of January. It’s not so much that it’s a bad film (although it certainly is that) – it’s a DULL film; you’ll be squirming in your seat and fighting the urge to pull out your phone. It’s a particularly unfortunate version of a project that was probably doomed from the start.

At the end of the day, “The Turning” you should do is toward another movie. Otherwise? You’re screwed.

[1 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 January 2020 09:06

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