Titles have meanings, though not always the ones their authors intend. The real "turning" here is this movie turning against its audience somewhere around the 80-minute mark — and as a result, the audience turning decisively against it.
I'm writing this review mainly for the benefit of people like me, who sat through the movie, got thoroughly mad at the, uhh... let's-just-call-it-an-ending, and now want to talk about it. In doing so, I know I'm "spoiling" the movie for those who have not seen it. On the other hand, this movie is currently polling at 12% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, both among critics and viewers; so for whom am I really spoiling this? The film-makers spoiled it first.
The Turning is based on... (No. Wait a minute. Let me try that again:)
The Turning is, needless (though, perhaps, with some greater necessity in this age of immediacy and simple entertainment, when making reference to the work of a writer whose propensity for prolixity — an attribute, alas, shared, to a great extent, along with an inordinate fondness for over-use of the "m-dash", by the compiler of these present notes — is, to say the least, unfashionable) to mention, based — if, that is, this word, with its suggestion of foundational solidity, is, in fact, apposite in describing the construction of so flimsy an edifice — upon the novella — not, as suggested by the opening credits, the "novel", the comparative length and complexity of which the author, were he living now, would not fail earnestly to point out — "The Turn of the Screw", by Henry James.
Phew. OK, that was a cheap shot at James's convoluted style. But James has had his revenge: though the challenge of parodying him may be fun, it's also exhausting, and even after a single sentence-cum-paragraph I need to come up for air.
"The Turn of the Screw" has been popular from the time it first appeared as a serial in Collier's Magazine in 1898. James had been interested in the ghost story throughout his entire career, and "The Turn of the Screw", coming as it did at the beginning of the richest period of his output, represents his finest achievement in the genre. The story concerns a young and inexperienced woman who is hired as a governess to two orphaned children on an English country estate called Bly. The governess, who remains unnamed through the course of the story, is first introduced to the little girl, Flora, whom she finds to be charming and spirited. Shortly afterwards, she meets the little boy, ten-year-old Miles, who from appearances ought to be every bit as charming as his sister. But his arrival back at Bly is darkened by the information that the boy is never to be allowed back to his school. He has done something — though what he's done is never made clear — that put either the physical or moral well-being of his schoolmates at risk.
Bly's bluff housekeeper Mrs. Grose refuses to entertain the thought that Miles may actually be guilty of anything, and the governess is happy to agree for the duration of a long, pleasant summer. But as the cheerful weather draws to a close, the governess begins to encounter the sinister figure of a man on the grounds of the estate. "An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman..." she remarks, and this is no less true today than it was then. But her fear grows deeper when she confides in Mrs. Grose, and the housekeeper recognizes her description as being that of the former valet, Peter Quint. Quint, it turns out, was a thorough villain: after the death of the children's parents and the decampment of their guardian back to London, Quint had taken to wearing his master's clothes and behaving as if he were the owner of Bly. He seduced the children's previous governess, Miss Jessel; and together, the pair of them had started to exercise a malign influence on their impressionable young charges — particularly Miles. But Quint had died; and Jessel had left Bly for unspecified reasons (which some commentators interpret as a nervous breakdown, and some interpret, plausibly, as pregnancy) and had died herself shortly thereafter.
The governess becomes more and more convinced that the evil presences of Quint and Miss Jessel are haunting the estate, and what's more, that the children are aware of it — and might be actively encouraging it. She makes it her mission to "save" Miles and Flora from the ghosts, a mission that begins to alienate her from the other inhabitants of Bly and leads to unexpected catastrophe.
"Turn of the Screw" was at first received as a particularly unpleasant ghost story, at a time when its theme of the corruption of children was considered tasteless in the extreme. "Corruption", as applied to the thoughts of a governess in 1840, in a tale written in 1898, certainly implied sexual corruption, and that was delicate territory in pre-Freudian times... though it's a little difficult to say exactly what kind of sexual corruption ghosts are capable of. But as the early twentieth century wore on, critics began to pick up on the ambiguity of James's story. Were there really disembodied spirits stalking Bly? Or was the haunting all the figment of the young governess's overheated imagination? A closer examination showed there was nothing in James's text that stated unambiguously that anybody other than the governess ever saw anything unusual in the shadows. The serious responsibilities of her first employment, combined with the unexpected luxuriousness of her surroundings, and her admitted infatuation with the distant master who hired her, may have overwhelmed her. She may have invented a terrible spiritual peril from which she alone could rescue her young charges.
Before long the Freudians took over, and made it clear that the true reading of the story showed that the governess was the victim of sex-repression, and that the ghosts were entirely a result of her own displaced desires. By the time Freud's repuation began to decline at the end of the 20th century, volumes had been written on James's novella, adding more and more turns to a far-overburdened screw: my favorite essay on the subject is a tongue-in-cheek commentary by Eric Solomon from 1963, which claims that the story is really a murder mystery, and that the villain of the piece is actually the diabolical Mrs. Grose. Solomon's essay may be a very dry parody, but the evidence he presents is every bit as detailed and credible as anything else ever given to support this or that re-interpretation.
In the meantime, there have always been voices quietly insisting that there is no "real" meaning to "The Turn of the Screw". To reduce it to the story of a governess losing her mind is to render the story painfully uninteresting. You can read it any way you want, but the ambiguity is the heart of the story. The strength of James's psychology lies in the fact that just about any interpretation is as valid as any other — including its reading as a plain, straightforward ghost story. While you're reading it, James's heightening of the tension — his "turning of the screw", as the title is meant to imply — is palpable, regardless of which aspect of his ambiguous tale you wish to emphasize.
When it comes to stage adaptations, movies, and other derivative works — which are, by their very nature, dependent on their creators taking a stand on which ambiguities they wish to emphasize — it's interesting to see what paths they take. Probably the finest film adaptation was also one of the earliest: Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961). Though film and literature have different purposes, different strengths and diferent subtleties, Clayton's movie managed to stay amazingly faithful to the nuances of its source. It was so successful, in fact, that there was little reason for anybody to make a movie version of "Turn of the Screw" ever again... which, I suppose, explains why a quick look at the IMDb shows that there have been at least 25 movie and TV versions of the story since. Few of them have even attempted the subtlety of The Innocents, and some of them — I'm thinking in particular of Michael Winner's "prequel", The Nightcomers, and the 2006 film Leelee Sobieski Takes a Bath... er, sorry: In a Dark Place — have been stunningly crass in their attempts to bring to the screen all the sex the Freudian critics suggested James's governess was trying to repress.
So where does The Turning fall in the spectrum of post-Innocents adaptations? For most of its running time, believe it or not, solidly in the middle. The movie is set in the mid-1990's, a time period that's close enough to our own not to need too many explanations for the behavior of its characters, yet remote enough for us to understand the absence of modern conveniences like cellphones and the Internet (both of which spell doom to Gothic horror). Naturally, a young woman of the late 20th century is not going to have the same inhibitions as a sheltered governess of the 1840's, so the script has made some accommodations — some of which work, and some of which don't.
On the plus side, Quint's character has been drawn more specifically. His corruption of Miles isn't the pederasty we might expect from the extreme reticence of the story and its mid-19th century setting; rather, Quint is revealed as a rapist and a thug, who took the child drinking and introduced him at a much-too-early age to the sort of brutal misogyny that was given the name "toxic masculinity" at about the time The Turning takes place. Miss Jessel is now no longer Quint's submissive accomplice; instead, she's another one of his victims. These are thoughtful, timely changes, and they immediately dispel the idea that our heroine (named Kate in this version) is merely a neurotic, hysterical spinster.
On the other hand, nanny Kate has been provided with a mother who suffers from the dreaded Unspecified Mental Illness, that blanket disorder that explains just about anything in horror films by explaining absolutely nothing. "Who needs explanations?" says the movie. "She's nuts!" Mom's turned screwy; that's all we need to know.
Kate is a young teacher, still serving her apprenticeship, who is recommended by her school for a position as a live-in private tutor for an orphaned 6-year-old child named Flora. To take this post, Kate must suddenly abandon her existing class of 25 children. But Kate is still unable to get over the fact that her father walked out on her and her mother when she was a child, so the opportunity to make a difference for a single, lonely child appeals to her ("I want to make a difference," she says — an odd thing to say, perhaps, for someone who's abandoning a whole lot of kids to concentrate on one student; but the movie sometimes cuts back to a photo of Kate with her original class, as though to bring home the point that Kate is a little self-obsessed).
Kate goes to say goodbye to her mother, an artist who is confined to a mental health facility, and finds her painting all by herself at the bottom of the facility's now-empty swimming pool. Kate's mother doesn't seem much more dysfunctional than many artists I've known who were not institutionalized, but as I mentioned before: we're supposed to understand that she's crazy, and has been so for much of Kate's childhood.
When Kate arrives at Flora's house — Bly Manor — she finds it's a a sprawling estate, hidden so deep in the middle of the Maine woods that it's actually in Ireland. The only permanent residents of the house seem to be Flora herself and the tight-lipped English housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, who has been with the family her entire working life. Flora turns out to be a bright and charming child, but she has some idiosyncracies. For one thing, she witnessed the car accident that killed her parents, just outside the gates of Bly, and as a result she is terrified of the road. She's scared to the point that she is unwilling ever to pass through those gates and leave the estate grounds. Another thing: she says she doesn't like the East Wing of the house, and refuses to go there, either. She also has abandonment issues — a natural thing for someone who saw both her parents die, but in this case reinforced by the sudden disappearance of her previous teacher, Miss Jessel. We know (though Kate never learns) that Flora had seen Miss Jessel drive off down that fatal road just before she disappeared; we never truly find out what else Flora might have seen.
Kate has difficulty sleeping her first night at Bly. Part of the problem is that she's just been introduced to a terrifyingly life-like wax figure of Flora's great-grandmother, which Kate (understandably) immediately removes from her room. But as the night goes on, she also thinks she hears voices — particularly a woman's voice, pleading for help — and strange thumping noises coming from the hallways. In the true Gothic tradition, she makes her way in her negligée through the dark passageways and into the abandoned East Wing. She stops outside one particular door, where the sounds seem to be coming from. But as she enters, the voices stop. The thumping seems to be explained by the wind pushing the heavy wooden shutters back and forth; but when Kate goes to close the windows, the door slams shut behind her. When Kate forces the door open, she finds a stranger there looking at her: a boy of about 16, in a school uniform. It's Flora's brother Miles, who has returned unexpectedly from his school.
Kate and Miles are more properly introduced the following morning. Miles takes particular note of Kate's apparent inability to sleep. But he seems anxious to make a good impression on her, even offering to teach her to ride a horse... the way his late friend, Peter Quint, instructed him. And who was Quint? asks Kate. Mrs. Grose replies sourly that he was the groundskeeper (and here Miles protests angrily that Quint ran the estate after his father's death); but Quint is dead now.
That's when a call comes in from Miles's school. Mrs. Grose concedes that it is now Kate's place to take it. The call is brief, and Kate's face goes white as she takes it. Hanging up, she returns to breakfast and simply tells Miles that the Headmaster has simply given her a list of homework for him to do over his break. Miles knows better, and is disconcerted. Afterwards, Kate confides to Mrs. Grose that the call was much more urgent. Miles has been expelled — he was found assaulting another student. Mrs. Grose refuses to believe it.
Kate now finds herself in a strange no-man's-land (or perhaps a no-woman's-land) between authority and helplessness. Mrs. Grose chastises her for not taking charge, yet at the same time she upbraids her for failing to recognize that the children are members of the privileged upper-classes, and are to be treated as such. Kate seems reluctant to assert herself, and this becomes a real problem when Miles appears to developed a sort of crush on his new teacher. Miles tries to get Kate's attention by hanging around and annoying her, and Kate, for her part, doesn't seem to know how to react to this. When she does attempt to exercise her authority over Miles, she does it in ineffective and counter-productive ways; and at the times when she needs her authority most, she winds up acting conciliatory and weak. Neither approach works well with Miles.
That night, Miles and Flora play a cruel trick on Kate: Kate thinks she hears Flora give a sudden scream outside, and when she looks out the window, she sees a limp form floating in the estate's pool. Horrified, she runs out and dives into the freezing water. But the joke's on her: the figure that sinks slowly to the bottom isn't really Flora. It's the waxwork dummy of the great-grandmother... or at least, it's a dummy until Kate gets close to it. All at once, it turns into something else: the ghostly figure of a dead woman, who suddenly comes back to life and clutches at Kate's arms.
Now thoroughly disconcerted, Kate passes yet another troubled night. Strange noises again keep her awake, to the point where she leaves the light on to help keep the bogeys at bay. No sooner has she managed to fall into a doze when she is startled awake again: she finds Miles standing over her, creepily stroking her face. Miles makes his excuses, saying he'd seen her light on and assumed she was still awake. He stumbles through an attempt at an apology; then he leans over her and gives her an awkward kiss. Kate again seems to have no idea how to respond to this, other than blankly telling him to go back to bed. She does, however, agree to let him give her the riding lesson he promised her.
During that riding lesson, Kate is a little upset at how often Miles uses his riding crop to discipline her horse. Miles repeats to her the lesson he learned from Quint: a horse is a powerful animal, and to get it to obey you need to show it who is in charge. We get the disturbing impression he is not only speaking about horses. This leads to a disturbing incident at the estate's koi pond, when Miles kills a fish that has been wounded by a crow. "Nothing should have to suffer," he says by way of explanation... though this explanation does not fit with any of his behavior before or after.
Kate continues to have bad dreams, most of which involve Miles and the shadowy figure of Peter Quint. She also continues to see and hear the ghostly woman from the pool, even during her waking hours. For his part, Miles seems to grow infuriated at Kate's ambivalent reaction to his ham-handed attempts to impress or even seduce her, and his behavior toward her becomes more and more hostile. Kate is no less ham-handed in her attempts to bridge the divide: she is continually trying to make a connection between the orphans' condition and her own abandonment by her father when she was a child. Both Mrs. Grose and Miles find the comparison contemptible, and make their opinions very clear to Kate. Miles berates her at one point for assuming that she could ever insinuate herself into the family. He also makes a point of reminding her of her insomnia: "I know what you're afraid of," he says; "Keeping the lights on won't keep you safe."
Things come to a head during a game of hide-and-seek, when Kate follows a figure she thinks is Miles down into the basement of the East Wing. There she once again runs into the baleful figure of the woman in the pool, whom she realizes must be the ghost of the missing Miss Jessel. Fleeing from the ghost, she runs into someone else in the darkness, someone unseen who first teases her and then turns violent. When Kate staggers back upstairs, frightened and bleeding, she accuses Miles of tormenting her, as he's done since the first day they'd met... but Mrs. Grose sternly informs her that Miles had been with her at the time of the attack.
Those of you who have seen the movie will realize I have been a little selective in my synopsis so far. There's a reason for that. I'm emphasizing some of the details I think are most important for what happens next: the climax (or rather, the total lack of climax) of the haunting.
The key question every adaptation of "Turn of the Screw" has to ask itself is, as we've seen, the question of the reality of the ghosts. In the case of The Turning, we're given a number of clues that suggest to us that the haunting is real. For example, the movie's prologue shows us that Peter Quint does indeed do something bad to Miss Jessel when Flora's first teacher attempts to escape from his clutches. It also suggests little Flora may know more about what subsequently happened to Miss Jessel than she is willing to admit to anybody, including herself. Before we even meet her, we see one of her little displays of creativity: a tableau featuring a doll, stained in red, set on top of a basin, surrounded by the heads of a number of other dolls. It's a macabre diorama that suggests Flora saw Quint dispose of Miss Jessel's body in one of the estate's many water features. Flora also paints a picture of Miss Jessel that looks disturbingly like the soggy ghost Kate has been seeing.
On the other hand, it's also possible that Kate got the idea of the woman in the water from the diorama, and that the diorama itself is completely innocent. After all, Kate has just come from seeing her disturbed mother sitting in an empty swimming pool. Later, her shock on diving into the frigid water to save what she thinks is Flora may cause her to think of both images, and invent a ghost.
But the most persuasive argument for the ghosts in The Turning being real is simply that we see plenty of signs of a haunting when Kate does not. Things move, things appear, things beckon... and sometimes Kate's not even in the room. Under the circumstances, it seems a little unfair to insist that these are all happening in Kate's imagination.
But then, having given us a hint, the movie decides to backtrack. We do see how insomnia is taking a toll on Kate — this is something the literary critics have made much of in the original story. We do see how Kate resorts to compulsive behavior, because of the tensions between her and Mrs. Grose on the one hand, and between her and Miles on the other — particularly with Miles. Her attitude toward him seems less like that of a teacher or parent toward an undisciplined child, and more like a schoolgirl in the throes of a hopeless crush. "He hates me," she sulks... while we see something very different. Poor Miles is struggling between the innocence of childhood that he's growing out of; the strength of adult desires that are drawing him, terrifyingly and irresistably, to the one available woman in his life; and the lessons taught him by Peter Quint, which — absolutely awful though they are — still look to Miles like the easy way out.
As for Quint: for all the evidence that Quint was a stalker and almost certainly a rapist, for all the certainty that he forced Miss Jessel out of the house, for all the likelihood that he did something to her before she could escape, it's just remotely possible that he didn't go so far as to kill her; that he didn't dispose of her body in the water. Perhaps his ghost didn't chase Kate through the cellar — the overprotective Mrs. Grose could have been giving Miles an alibi to protect him. All the ghostliness could be in Kate's imagination, causing her to worry about ending up like her mother, and making her spiral out of control.
And then, having given us equal likelihood of two mutually-contradictory explanations, the movie does something unforgiveable: it gives us both in succession.
First, it plays out as though the haunting was genuine. It builds to the explanation we've been expecting all the way through: Quint killed Miss Jessel, and then Mrs. Grose arranged that Quint should meet with an accident. But his unquiet spirit still stalks Bly, looking for revenge... exerting its malignant influence on the children. Even as this end beings to play out, we can see it was still possible for the film-makers to bring the story to a climax with a pleasing and appropriate sense of ambiguity. But then something strange happens: the narrative gets too simple. It abandons the ambiguity too abruptly; and just when we're wondering how they could be content with something so pat, the movie goes from figuratively backtracking on its position on Kate to literally backtracking. The whole end sequence starts over again, this time with no question that Kate is losing her mind.
Throughout the movie, a certain emphasis has been placed on false faces, sometimes as disguise, sometimes as protection, and sometimes just a literal mask (academics will tell you that "mask" is the literal meaning of the word "persona"). In the second, presumably "real" ending, a shattered doll comes to symbolize the final dissolution of Kate's mental health. Miles is seen carrying his riding crop from the riding-lesson scene, and this suggests that he has broken the strong animal he wanted to dominate, as Quint taught him. Miles has often commented on Kate's trouble sleeping, so it seems likely he is the one who has been supplying the noises in the night that have kept her awake. What Kate thinks is an attack in the night by a disembodied hand may in fact be Miles's pet spider set loose in her room.
In this version of the story, Miles's statement that he knows what Kate's afraid of suggests less that he knows Kate's been seeing ghosts, and more that she's disturbed because of her uncomfortable attraction to a very young boy ("The Screw of Le Torneau"? There's a tasteless 1990's pun for you...). It would be in character for Miles to think that, after Kate's non-reaction to his botched attempt at seduction. The shadowy figure tormenting Kate in the cellar of the East Wing was also, undoubtedly, Miles, with Mrs. Grose providing him an alibi — this is particularly believable when we consider that the attacker hit Kate with the now-faceless great-grandmother dummy that Miles used in the pool episode.
So there we have it: the haunting is all in Kate's broken mind. Quint is safely dead. Miss Jessel is probably alive, and waiting tables in Portland while she mails out copies of her résumé. And that's all we need to...
WAIT. WAIT. WAIT. BACK UP. Let's do what The Turning does: a Turning. Let's backtrack a couple of paragraphs and start all over again:
Forget both endings. The ghosts are real. Even though the first "ending" has been shown to be a hallucination, Quint really did kill Miss Jessel, and her ghost has been appealing to Kate for help finding her body so that her story will be known. And Quint is still stalking the house as well — probably (as the first, misleadingly-false "ending" told us) because Mrs. Grose killed him.
Miles is perfectly aware of all this. Of course he is: Kate's haunting started in earnest the moment he arrived (though the film rather pointlessly distracts us from this fact by throwing in fake jump scares and creepy music long before any such thing is warranted by the story). Early on, Miles might have taken Kate's side; but after she freezes when he kisses her, Miles hides his humiliation by behaving more and more like Quint. When Miles pretends to see Quint in an empty mirror midway through the movie, he's not really pretending, and his subsequent words to Kate about knowing what she's afraid of aren't really ambiguous at all. Yes, it was probably Miles down in the cellar, not the spectral Quint... but the point still stands: Miles and the ghost of Quint are working together to make sure nobody ever takes Kate seriously.
This accounts for why we see the ghosts and their activities when Kate doesn't, and can't. It ties together the movie's many references to damaged people — Kate, both children, Miss Jessel, even Kurt friggin' Cobain — and the ways their cries for attention and help go unheard. Kate's parents traumatize her, and nobody much cares; Quint murders Jessel, but Kate suffers for it; Kate goes nuts, and Flora suffers for it; Kurt Cobain is... umm, well, Kurt Cobain is still dead, but at least it gives the movie an excuse to throw Courtney Love's new song "Mother" on the soundtrack.
This explanation also goes a long way toward explaining why the movie follows both its non-ending "endings" with scenes that play under the credits: first, we get what appears to be a reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" — another ambiguous story about a woman driven to madness by the actions of the men around her — and then, more images of the ghostly Miss Jessel, who will now never find rest.
(Ahem.) Call me crazy, but I get the feeling you're not convinced.
Oh, well. Maybe the frustration is part of the point, putting us in the place of victims whose stories have never been told. Or, more plausibly, maybe studio interference got in the way of the film-maker's original intentions — after all, this is a movie whose trailer flat-out lied about the content of the actual film.
Then again, we can't overlook the possibility that The Turning just isn't a very good movie. Sure, it looks great: the cinematography captures the unhealthy atmosphere of Bly beautifully. Sure, the actors struggle valiantly to do the best they can with the little they've been given... particularly Finn Wolfhard, whose performance as Miles makes us want to find depth in what we'd otherwise dismiss as a badly-written character. But somewhere along the line, something went badly wrong. At the end of the movie, the audience is left with the vague idea that somebody had something to say, and had no idea how to say it. There is a difference between ambiguity and not being able to explain yourself clearly.
I will leave the last word to Henry James himself — actual Henry James, not a silly parody. He was speaking of Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym"... but it seems as though his ghost is peering through the window of our century to issue a sorrowful judgment on The Turning, so well does the characterization fit:
"The result is that, to my sense, the climax fails — fails because it stops short, and stops short for want of connexions. There are no connexions; not only, I mean, in the sense of further statement, but of our own further relation to the elements, which hang in the void: whereby we see the effect lost, the imaginative effort wasted."
Yeah. What he said.