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Ambitious and creative, but with barely a remnant of the novel's great subtlety.
on 30 December 2009
This is a brave, ambitious attempt to update 'Turn of the Screw' in order to appeal to a modern audience, and though it is unfortunately undone by the occasional poorly written and cliched lines at critical moments, (where they should have trusted the lasting value of James's writing), and an inability to employ the Jamesian subtlety that is so crucial to the story's great ambiguity, it was always going to be a challenging novel to recreate.
There are many areas where it impresses: It largely overcomes the numerous obstacles of translating the book into a film, which is particularly difficult with this novel due to the large focus on the governess's thoughts and consciousness which in a film possibly could become frustrating and monotonous. The film thus brings in other characters to communicate the governess's thoughts through more lively dialogue. The film's depiction of Quint as a lecherous womaniser is an interesting and effective embellishment to James's character, even if it comes at the cost of much of the mystery that surrounds him in the novel. So too by presenting Miss Jessel as a real woman who solicitated Quint's advancements, the film expands her role to mirror the sexual desires we perceive in the governess.
The casting of these character is excellent, and the casting of the children even more so, as they perfectly match the characters presented in the novel, though Miles provides a more obstinate character, without the subtle cunning of his depiction in the novel. Unfortunately, though I feel the film ruins these characters by giving them the profanities of Jessel and Quint's to speak aloud. This imposes several limits upon the film; it becomes harder to see the apparitions as a possible hallucination of the governess when the children voice their profanities, (even if this is merely the governess's imagination). Furthermore, it is a great stretch of the imagination to see such angelic children voicing such profanities at their governess, and massively undoes the subtlety with which James suggests that conspiracy against the governess. Consequently, the children's involvement with the ghosts appears confirmed. Furthermore, despite the fact that the film makes great attempt to communicate to the reader the psychological conundrum at the heart of the novel, (as to whether the ghosts are real or a figment of the governess's imagination,) when the children begin to suddenly echo the ghosts' profanities the reality of the ghosts also seems without doubt; thus the great subtlety which has become the quintessential feature of the novel is almost inexistent in the film.
Finally the setting is wonderful, perfectly selected and wonderfully filmed to bring to life the chilling apparitions with powerful effect. However, yet again the film fails to employ James's subtlety. In the novel Bly is imbued with a "summer sweetness", and to begin with the governess is swept up in joy and love for the children; there is no element of superstition until the governess, and we, are entirely at home in our surroundings. Yet in the film, the first meeting with Flora is layered in suspense and superstition, the house echoing in ghostly whispers, the grounds not peaceful, but deeply unsettling. And why is this important? Because as a result, the film's Bly becomes the 'Other' house of our nightmares, terrifying, but far enough away in our imagination to be but a distant fear. By contrast the novel plays on what Freud would later come to define as the "uncanny", by presenting Bly as a wonderful, home-like residence, and then, once were are settled in with the governess's in her wonderful new life, the horror unveils. Thus, James brings the unhomely ghosts into the home and the result is deeply haunting; we are left with the sense that this story could happen anywhere, in our very own homes. This is what the story lacks, that truly haunting quality that the novel achieves through its subtle references and reinforced ambiguity. It is to conclude, a creative attempt to recreate one of the greatest ghost stories written, but ultimately one which falls far short of the novel's great precedent.