Based on the novella by Henry James, another gay artist with an outsider's perceptive eye into the human condition, Benjamin Britten's opera was written in 1954, less than ten years after "Peter Grimes". With only six characters, Britten here seems to have taken to heart James's injunction to view mere character as plot, a line of thought whose logical conclusion would end in Britten's "Death in Venice" where one sole character ruminates on life's sadness and joys. But, in "The Turn of the Screw" there is still plenty of plot to fascinate the observer, despite the pared-down cast list.
And it is not only the cast-list that is so small. It seems the older Britten became, the less melodic were his operas: you won't be humming tunes from "The Turn of the Screw" as you skip down the stairs. No, what replaces melody here is a vivid sense of a haunted and haunting atmosphere, into which this marvellous production draws you and holds you tight until the very end. Beautifully shot in a late autumn landscape of unkempt foliage, misty marshes and forlorn rooms, this is a film of the opera, not a staged production, and all the better for that.
Quint (Mark Padmore) and Miss Jessel (Catrin Wyn Davies) are brilliantly evoked, the one barely seen with his guilty eye to camera, the other seen all too clearly, her tortured face and gaunt figure wonderfully portrayed in the autumnal half-light. The two children are good, but could have been better directed. But for me it is Diana Montague as Mrs Grose, and especially Lisa Milne as the Governess who do wonders for the viewer's nerves, chillingly conveying the sense of ominous mischief that is gradually revealed. Their singing is superb, some parts being clearly recorded but some being live to their place, for one can often here their echoes reverberate around the bare rooms, adding a foreboding realism to the scene. The City of London Sinfonia conducted by the ever-dependable Richard Hickox support.
No gripes? Well, it is a shame that there are no extras. But, overall, a wonderful film that is true to the opera in every way: I'm sure Britten himself would have approved. Although you won't be humming his tunes, you will nevertheless feel that the experience has been worthwhile.