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The Turn Of The Screw (1999)
Director: Ben Bolt

review by Paul Higson

Christmas 1989, the Independent Television Network screened Herbert Wise's The Woman In Black. Those who caught it entered the 1990s with that ghost story haunting them, others to catch it on its one-off video release through Futuristic a year later, word of mouth building upon its reputation from there. Here we were with another feature-length ghost movie made for television at the tail end of another, the next, decade, one this time preceding a new millennium. Potential viewers were again distracted, it was a bigger gig this time, or so it felt at the time, and most would have missed the late December 1999 screening of Ben Bolt's The Turn Of The Screw. But hey, was history to repeat itself, for in 2000 the film is released by Acorn Video (as were a number of inoffensive ITV titles representing 20 years of prime time harmlessness), could this be the frightening gothic classic to creep up on us and take us by tingly surprise again. Sadly, no, it isn't! In fact, it's barely interested in obtaining our attention at all.

Henry James' novelette The Turn Of The Screw (1989) had already been adapted four times by then, notably in 1961 as The Innocents, directed by Jack Cardiff, and considered a classic. The 1974 Dan Curtis TV-movie returned to it the title The Turn Of The Screw and if the British video release was anything to go by appeared to be shot on videotape though that could have been the result of a lousy tape transfer. Rusty Lemorande's 1994 feature film version also titled The Turn Of The Screw I am unable to comment on, and 1995's The Haunting Of Helen Walker directed by Tom McLoughlin, is lamentable and impossible to sit through. It would seem the increasing number of later adaptations are the result of the glorification of the first filmed version of the story, though one has to question why the half-hearted latter attempts were ever begun upon. Bolt's weak attempt was the second version made in 1999, Antonio Aloy's El Celo was the first that year. The Daily Telegraph thought the ITV film "terrifically gripping" but it is a mystery as to where this opinion comes from, unbelievable that it could have been a comment made by someone upon actually having seen the production.

The story follows the familiar pattern with a governess (Jodhi May) hired to take charge of an orphaned boy and girl, hired by the wealthy Uncle (Colin Firth) who is aggravated by the idea of their guardianship, wants nothing to do with them, sees them as no more than a burden. It is suspected that the children are under the influence of a pair of ghosts, the boy having had a friendship with the master's valet Peter Quint and the girl previously close to the former governess, Miss Jessel, Quint's evil infectious and still embodied in the youngsters. Mrs Goose, the housekeeper (Pam Ferris) is an ally to the governess' belief in a supernatural mischief, crediting her sightings of the dead ones lakeside, outside the window and in the dark hallway. Retaliation against those haunting only leads to the untimely death of one of the players.

A flatter experience could not have been achieved. Nobody's heart is in this damp squib of a film. It has a spook factor of nil, the ghosts too corporeal. The camera lingers on them too long and too closely, you half expect them to pick their nose, cross their eyes and squeeze a zit. Yes, The Shining annoyed me for similar reasons. Quint is a ginger horror only, with a Hucknall-ish cloud of hair and whiskers that make him look about as terrifying as one of Michael Bentine's potty men or an ochre muppet. (I looked for Noddy Holder's name in the credits but it wasn't him.) Then the governess has the effrontery to describe him as handsome. Chris Evans, lament over Billy no more, you're in. Try not to laugh as Jodhi recites: "He has no hat. He has red hair... very red.. and a very pale face. And he has whiskers." No hat, eh?

The story appears to be poorly understood by the director Ben Bolt. Nothing technically is strived for and little besides demanded of from the performers. Colin Firth has clearly not seen any of the other film versions or the original fiction, were normally the haughty coldness of heart comes icily across by actor predecessors it is here interpreted as the most innocuous of indifferences. It was probably one day's shoot and a nice earner. Instead of taking the money and running he could have invested a little more interest, more likely he has no recall of the making at all. Adrian Johnston's music does not chance on the eerie side, can't be bothered, and this being ITV network gothic David Odd is brought in to steer the camerawork unenthusiastically through the proceedings.

There was clearly no budget for effects trickery or anything excessive. The featured cast is nine, extras kept to a minimum, locations also, nothing too demanding permitted. Atmospherics were out making for a languorous 92 minutes of traipsing and chatter. The only bit of ghost-like business was a simple old backing up and vanishing into a wall. The pasty faced Mrs Jessel is modelled on the ghost from The Woman In Black but she is not cut into the proceedings with any of the cinematic surprise of that classic phantom. Firth is not the only cast member lax in performance, virtually everyone is. To stay with this The Turn Of The Screw is to watch an hour and a half of children remembering their lines, because it certainly cannot be called acting. They must have got through a lot of lollipops on this one congratulating them every time they got it right. Sinister was called for but the children were incapable of it and it's doubtful the director was looking for it. To be fair to Jodhi May she is very aware of her role and though miscast, not prim, hard or old-enough looking for the part, her deterioration is well executed to the extent that one might well fear for her sanity. Instead the dullness of all other aspects of this film wrench the viewer back to a state of uncaring. Jodhi was great in Sister, My Sister only a few years before, is good in the right role and were her soft voice to match her maturity as an actor she could become a formidable stage and screen presence. If only one other person in the cast or crew had put as much into this deadly dull affair as much as this undervalued actress had.
The Turn of the Screw

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Film adaptations
of Henry James'
The Turn Of The Screw

The Others (for US TV, director unknown, 1957)

The Turn Of The Screw
(for US TV, director: John Frankenheimer, 1959)

Die Sundigen Engel (dir: Ludwig Cremer, 1962)

The Nightcomers
(prequel, dir: Michael Winner, 1970)

Le Tour d'ecrou (dir: Raymond Rouleau, 1974)

The Turn Of The Screw
(TV-movie, dir: Dan Curtis, 1974)

Otra vuelta de tuerca
(TV mini-series, dir: Dimitrio Sarras, 1981)

The Turn Of The Screw
(dir: Petr Wiegl, 1982)

Otra Vuelta de tuerca
(dir: Eloy de la Iglesia, 1985)

The Turn Of The Screw
(TV-movie, dir: Graeme Clifford, 1990)

Die Drehung der Schraube
(a film of Britten's opera, dir: Claus Viller, 1990)

The Turn Of The Screw
(dir: Rusty Lemorande, 1994)

The Haunting Of Helen Walker (dir: Tom McLoughlin, 1995)

El Celo
(dir: Antonio Aloy, 1999)

The Turn Of The Screw
(TV-movie, dir: Ben Bolt, 1999)

The Turn Of The Screw
(dir: Nick Millard, 2003)

The Turn Of The Screw
(TV-movie of Britten's opera, dir: Katie Mitchell, 2004)

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