A young schoolteacher Kate (Mackenzie Davis) takes on the job as a governess for the orphaned Flora (Brooklynn Prince). When Miles (Finn Wolfhard) is excluded from boarding school, his presence seems to stir a presence within the house.
Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ has been adapted for the screen big and small many times. None have been so masterly as Jack Clayton's ‘The Innocents’, a film so good that the first time I saw it I immediately re-watched it because I was so astounded. So, anyone looking to try and take up the challenge has got some big shoes to fill. The good news is that the filmmakers of ‘The Turning’ firmly plant their feet into the footwear. The bad news is the shoes they are filling are that of a clown.
The film's issues are as varied as they are plentiful. Its very conception is at fault. For a ghost story to work, the spooks must either be coherently real or analogies wherein their existence can be unresolved. ‘The Turning’ attempts either both or neither - it's hard to tell in the myopic reality it constructs. Tawdry scare sequences often end up being dreams, so in the latter part of the film when it tries to up the anti, there is no palpable sense of drama.
Like a one leggeded marathon runner, the pacing is awful. We get the “spooky” cold open, then the 20 minutes of set up. So far so bland. But when Miles turn up the film becomes erratic. It can’t decide what should be the threat and rather than have the ghosts and Miles compliment each other, it just becomes senseless. As the first-hour scrolls by, Kate has seen pretty irrefutable proof of ghosts by the logic of the film and she never seems to question it or care.
In its defence, it does try to weave a facet of deteriorating mental health. Now please just allow me to see this defence and kick it squarely in the nuts, as it is entirely mishandled, shockingly trite and juvenile. It is like the filmmakers have heard of subtly but only see it manifested in giant neon letters.
The only adaptions of books I want to see are those that reinvent the source material. However, a lot of the changes here are just pointless. Moving events from Victorian Essex to early '90s Maine serves it badly. The Gothic trappings that help the thrust of the story are missed and plenty could be done with the parallels of those eras. Instead, we just get a ghost story but with some Nirvana references and oversized jumpers.
For what it's worth, Davis, Wolfhard and Prince really sell their parts. Their dynamics work well, especially when all three share scenes. More detail and thoughtful pressure on these elements could have served things better.
In a production like this, it is hard to tell exactly when everything went wrong. It is rare to see something on this budget be so entirely incompetent, especially with the likes of Steven Spielberg attached to the production. A truly terrible film.