TV film review: The Turn of the Screw (1999), directed by Ben Bolt
This adaptation of Henry James’s 1898 short story, which I didn’t particularly enjoy, was done in 1999.
In case they decide to return: hello to the literary snobs who decided I was an idiot for not appreciating James’s insanely long, rambling sentences about nothing in particular. This review isn’t going to win you over either, because I still don’t like the story. Now go away before you hurt yourself hitting your head on that keyboard.
Basic premise: The Master (Colin Firth) hires a governess (Jodhi May) to look after his orphaned niece Flora (Grace Robinson) and nephew Miles (Joe Sowerbutts) at his house in the country.
“Miss” shares the house with housekeeper Mrs Grose (Pam Ferris), some servants, and what appears to be the ghosts of the Master’s valet, Quint (Jason Salkey), and the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Caroline Pegg).
The children are adorable and well-behaved, SO SOMETHING MUST BE WRONG. Especially since Miles has been expelled from his boarding school, but without any reasons given. He was probably wicked, because he admits to not being as good as everyone says he is. To prove a point, he goes out in the garden at night, just to show that he can. The horror!
And then there are the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Quint, who are obviously (obviously) trying to corrupt the minds of the sweet, innocent children and being the parson’s daughter that she is, Miss has to Save the Children’s Precious Souls from Those Demons!
Or, in other words, young governess cracks under the pressure of being the one to look after the entire household and not being allowed to contact the Master about anything, starts seeing ghosts, draws some fucked up conclusions about it, and goes batshit insane.
At least this adaptation is less ambiguous than the original. And it cuts out the whole bit about a man telling another man THE MOST HORRIFIC STORY EVER (it really isn’t) in front of the fire.
It would have been scarier if you only got brief glimpses of the ghosts (or mind-ghosts, if you like) instead of having them there for at least ten seconds at a time, every time. (The Woman in Black knew how to use that to take full advantage.) Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be scary?
The only things that are clear is that Miles is a brat, Flora is a little shy but she’s just a child, and that Miss is like one of those people who watches too many soaps and subsequently ends up thinking everyone are having affairs with each other, and so on. Except here she’s probably read too many ghost stories and too much of the Bible, and could do with a good night’s sleep. Or, you know, flat out ask Miles why he was expelled as soon as he gets home, rather than save it for the very last moment. Oh, and not completely jump to conclusions about the ghosts. She tends to stare at them with her mouth open (she must’ve gone to the Kristen Stewart School of Acting!), rather than, you know, try to talk to them or do something a bit more constructive than pretending to be Bella Swan.
I didn’t like the short story, and despite not having to suffer through the never-ending sentences, I don’t like this adaptation. Not that the adaptation is in any way badly done, far from it. I just don’t like the story, The Turn of the Screw, regardless of its form. As a ghost story it’s not well executed (read: it’s not scary or even chilling), and the whole premise is just off. Who in their right mind would forbid anyone from contacting them about anything, even the really important stuff, when you leave them in charge of your huge country mansion and the children you’re having to look after? Sure, don’t trouble the Very Busy Master with silly little trifles, but your nephew being expelled is kind of a big deal. “Here’s a letter from the boy’s headmaster, which I can tell from the handwriting. I can’t be bothered to read what it says, so you go ahead and read it and do whatever, despite you being much too inexperienced for this sort of thing. I don’t care, I’m Very Busy.” You may be Colin Firth in period costume, but you’re still a wanker.
2 out of 5 nervous breakdowns.