Dear friends and readers,
I’ve now watched Sandy Welch’s powerful 90 minute film rendition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw three times, and want to recommend it strongly not just as a perceptive reading of the tale (in line with what James said of it in a later preface), but as another of this new 21st century generation of film adaptations: like three Austen films of 2007 (Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Mansfield Park) as well as a slightly later group (2008-9, Cranford Chronicles, Return to Cranford, Room with a View), it’s short and done within a limited budget (one location for the house and grounds, and the rest in a studio), but at the same time intensely atmospheric, using sophisticated filmic techniques, and concentrating on a community of people, most of whom are powerless and/or vulnerable (and shown to be so), predominantly female. The latter (the vulnerable, female, seeking refuge) includes longer ones with a larger budget (the 2008 Sense and Sensibility, the recent Emma, Little Dorrit).
What makes it different, special, is that it’s a ghost story, and centers on a destroyed governess with tragic-poignant and scary ending. These last two seem to go together. Ann is an Jane Eyre who is not rescued, a Lucy Morris (Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds) whose attempts to actively fight evil boomerang on her, a Mary Reilly sent to prison at the end because someone should pay for these deaths. One might usefully compare it to Victorian gothic stories especially by women (Elizabeth Gaskell). Partly because it is also so similar it gives shape to the group as forming a kind of cycle of films.
It is commentary type adaptation; it departs in a few significant ways. James’s story opens up on a Christmas Eve in the later 19th century, a group of people are telling ghost stories, and one man remembers being told of a fearful one by a governess who has now been dead 20 years; she told him the story 20 years before that about an incident that happened in her life yet further back. At the time of the telling she had still been respectable and had a decent place somewhere. So we move through recesses of time.
Welch’s film-story covers a brief time. We begin looking at a shattered woman in a temporary psychiatric asylum; a psychiatrist, Dr Fisher (played by the deeply empathic Dan Stevens) is taking down a deposition or questioning her.
As can be seen from the bars and her outfit, our governess is in a temporary prison, a place meant for psychiatrically disturbed people (who we see outside in various postures of suffering
where she can stay if she will only answer the questions in the way wanted. If she doesn’t manage that, she will be sent to prison to face a charge of manslaughter for the boy who has died while in her care, Miles (Josef Lindsay). This scene of sympathetic questioning is returned to several times during the story: a flashback told by the governess though without voice over so that once we enter into the past it feels like the present. It both punctuates turns in the story and frames it ominously as we see Dr Fisher go to consult a man in charge of the asylum, the Professor (Corin Redgrave) who moves from hostility and suspicion of the governess to admitting she could be telling the truth to showing indifference as "someone must pay" and he doesn’t want to be bothered helping her.
At the close when the governess finished her story about her experience of two fearful blighted evil ghosts, the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Katie Lightfoot) and her violent lover, Peter Quint (Edward MacLiam) who (she says) were attempting to take over or else alluring two children (who may be complicit with them or may be victims), the governess is taken away to another prison to stand trail for murder. We watched her handcuffed and put in a van. Once walking to the professor Dr Fisher thinks he might have seen Quint in the prison hall; as he watches Ann taken away, one of the guards take on the face and form of Quint and then turns back to a nondescript man. Yes a second person seems to see one of the ghosts and believes the governess.
If it be thought, this is a simplication of the tale, it’s not. As dramatized we have all the ambiguity of James’s approach. No one but the governess at Bly admits to seeing the two ghosts; when at one point Ann thinks she has seen Quint slapping Miss Jessel repeatedly and Miles slapping his sister, Flora (Eva Sayers) in imitation, after having tried to drown her (by keeping her head under water
and made frantic, when the governess slaps Miles, the housekeeper, Sarah Grose (played briliantly by Sue Johnston) called Ann mad and appears to think the only one committing cruel violence is Ann. Sometimes the children seem to know the ghosts are there (and grin and look complicit, mischievous spiteful looks in their faces, enjoying the governess’s aloneness and perplexity), but sometimes they seem innocent children at play and themselves lonely and bereft of protection or love and sometimes again cruel.
There is the erotic frustration of James’s governess. We first see her visit the children’s guardian, the uncle; while telling her never to bother him, he treats her seductively and it’s clear she is attracted and longs for him to visit Bly (as he half-promises to do). In her dream life she imagines him in her bed only to find him turning into Peter Quint. She leads a repressed life and keeps the children under control by insisting on lessons even in summer. She is appalled when a letter comes from Miles’s school saying that Miles is expelled for "intolerable" conduct, and it’s clear she thinks the boy did something sexual, perhaps taught that by Quint. She takes no steps to find the boy another school; to be fair, how could she? but she also destroys letters she had the children write their guardian about Miles’s desire to go to another school. We also see she is troubled: in her talks with Dr Fisher there are flashbacks to her father who was a bigoted religious tyrant.
An uncanny gothic atmosphere is built up, one as portentous, strangely beautiful, and chilling as James’s own. Ann plays the usual Psyche role of wandering around the dark house, which looks ruined and peeling from the outside all damp, up grand mahogany staircases with big balustrades, through narrow corridors (which repeat the angles of the aslyum corridors). Her soft white blouses (ivory, offcolor) add to her feminity and lady-like frail feel. There’s an old grey church on the property, a flower and fennel filled grave yard in which Mrs Grose shows her the gravestones of Miss Jessel (who drowned herself – we see it re-enacted) and Peter Quint; the penultimate scene takes us back to that graveyard where Mrs Grose and Flora look at Miles’s gravestone. Peter Quint like some Dracula appears at windows to Ann and is trying to get in — reminding me of the ghost in Wuthering Heights (the book). It’s fantastical, photographed at odd angles frequently, framed by gardens, hedges, flower pots:
On the other hand (as in James’s tale) importantly, there is much evidence that the ghosts at least did once exist and Peter Quint at least did terrible harm. And then beyond this Welch adds to James’s story a complete community of women servants. Her changes remind me of Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly where a whole staff is added to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
and this is more than James’s story seen from below. At least three seem to have been sexually harassed by Quint, and one woman who kills herself while Ann is there appears to have been raped.
Ann hears noises in the corridor which sound like violence towards these maids. it’s as such moments as well as when Ann goes in search of the chlidren’s rooms to see what they are doing, that Mrs Grose suddenly appears and vey frighened as if she knows the two blighted presences are in the house:
There is also much empathy in the lost way Miss Jessel’s ghost is presented; here she seems to be re-enacting being driven from the house:
On the other hand, this is not a supportive community. None of the women will openly admit they have seen ghosts. They will not warn the governess. They look despairing when she does (once) try to leave, but when she returns, they don’t help her. They leave the house on the last day she tries to fight Quint on her own. Most significantly of all, Mrs Grose acts complicitly on behalf of her employer by never admitting anything she hints at. Some may say the ending of over-the-top for we see a new governess arrive in just the way Ann had, and Mrs Grose again hand her the keys.
Where Ann saw Miles at the piano, now the new governess sees Flora who tells her "we were waiting for you, with an scary staring expression on her eyes that recalls Miles’s:
To call it feminist is not strong enough, partly because the vulnerable include Dr Fisher
the psychiatry system, the children, and (as in James), the governess seems to feel she has seen the face of sheer evil in Quint. It is socially concerned, and speaks to the way mentally troubled people are being dismissed to pharmacology and bullying (called CBT or some such word) today. It records the plight of governesses in the 19th century and women in analogous positions in today’s various worlds.
So the emphasis is on powerless women and the two genuinely powerful people, the Professor, the uncle, the Governess’s father and prison priest, and police officers are clearly male. The Professor disdains the governess, and the uncle-master (we are told) knew Quint harassed the women and didn’t care. If he doesn’t harass them himself, he can’t be bothered as he can get more attractive women. I felt the key relationship (and the got star biilling) was that of the governess and housekeeper. becomes central. The housekeeper is complicit to protect herself and because (as she says — echoing Dr Fisher and even the Professor) no one cares and she at least keeps everyone seeming civilized most of the time. Words to the effect. But what are we to think and feel when she greets a new governess? Is this the malicious repetivie patterns of a ghost story projecting a Kafka universe? or a woman who lets others be abused; she dismisses the servant’s suicide with a story about how the servant was deranged because she lost so many relatives during WW1. Maybe.
I hope I have conveyed something of the power of this one. By contrast, the women of the Cranford Chronicles and The Return to Cranford (which I hope to write about eventually) seem to be and are powerful within their sphere. They do support one another. They too have limits. Martha (Claudie Blakely) dies in childbirth and it’s expected she get incessantly pregnant, and in the Return we have two young heroines who nearly don’t get the young heroes (a romance motif as the young heroes buy into the values which would keep them enclosed in their family hierarchies). Still as in the Austen films, Room with a View, Little Dorrit, the women win out
while in The Turn of the Screw, only some are holding on and that by knowingly letting other women take the hits.
James’s preface tells us he saw the ghosts as real on some level and, "blighted fearful presences," felt for the governess, and wanted to create an atmosphere of intense evil. All this Welch and her team tried for an succeeded in doing; perhaps there was too much emphasis on Quint as an embodiment of male vampiric nightmares as felt by the governess, but that was in line with the psychiatric perspective of Dr Fisher and the erotic dreams of the Welch’s governess in the film.
I also went looking at criticism of The Turn of the Screw, thinking to myself Welch probably did. I had no trouble finding misogynistic readings (by older Jamesian scholars, like Gordon Putt) where the governess certainly should have been put in prison as deranged, repressed, a witch-imagination. It seemed to me Welch had read Woolf on the atmosphere of the landscape. Those which were "balanced" on whose "fault" it was (as is Britten’s opera), still did not come up with a reading as pro- the disenfranchised of society of this film. The film is in fact about our world today; where the others demonstrate the strength of community, this shows its limitations.