TV film review: The Turn of the Screw (BBC, 2009), directed by Tim Fywell
This adaptation starts in an insane asylum, where a doctor (Dan Stevens) is trying to find out what really happened to bring a patient there, before (I presume) she’s hauled off to be hung for murder. The patient, Ann (Michelle Dockery), starts to tell her story of how she came to be hired as a governess by some rich dude (Mark Umbers) in the city.
Bly Manor is cared for by a friendly housekeeper (Sue Johnston). The child in need of a governess is called Flora (Eva Sayer), and her brother Miles (Josef Lindsay) is away at boarding school. Flora is polite and friendly but gives of creepy vibes. Miles is expelled from school and comes home. Miles is polite but surly and is the level of creepy you’d expect from The Omen‘s Damien looking like a young Boris Johnson.
Ann was given strict instructions to not bother Rich Dude with anything regarding his niece and nephew, so she can’t tell him about the expulsion, but she’s happy to daydream having sex (!) with Rich Dude and believing he will show up as some kind of knight in shining armour … for some reason. Spoiler: he doesn’t. He never even flirted with her.
Ann feels uneasy around the manor, despite having good fun with the two little angels. She starts to see a man, potentially the ghost of Peter Quint (Edward MacLiam), a friend or something of Rich Dude. He had a torrid love affair with a previous governess, Emily Jessel (Katie Lightfoot) – maybe even in front of the children, gasp! – she fell pregnant and they both eventually died.
The housekeeper is unconcerned, despite the increasingly hysterical governess. There is no such thing as ghosts, after all, but one of the servants (Nicola Walker) tells Ann about how the Master left Quint alone with a house full of womenfolk and abused several of them.
Perhaps Quint is trying to come back and possess Miles? Maybe both Miss Jessel and Quint are trying to claim the children somehow? Is the governess really trying to protect two innocent children from a very real evil spirit or is she, in fact, slowly going insane?
I believe the 1999 adaptation kept closer to the original story. This adds glimpses of sex scenes for no real reason (other than to make it more appealing to a Modern Audience™, I guess), and is pushing the actual ghost/evil spirit angle a lot more, making it more ambiguous if the governess actually saw ghosts or if she was experiencing psychotic episodes. The children aren’t overbearingly polite either, they go between acting like normal kids to acting creepy, and Miles even gets violent with Flora, which I don’t think he ever did in the short story. (It’s been years and I didn’t like it in the first place, so I might be misremembering.)
It really is unsettling how much Miles, with that slightly too long and unruly mop of blonde hair looks like a young Boris Johnson. Although fair play, that actually helps to make Miles seem even creepier as a character. Especially when you add in that rich boarding school superiority into the mix.
The actors do a perfectly fine job. It’s fun to see Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens together, one year before Downton Abbey would make them both famous. The setting is beautiful – Brympton d’Evercy in Somerset – and if it wasn’t for having an intense dislike for the actual story it’s based on, this might be an interesting watch. But having read the original short story and now seen two adaptations of it, I still don’t get the appeal of The Turn of the Screw. It’s not a convincing ghost story (but by golly, this one does try) and if it’s a story about a woman slowly going mad, I prefer The Haunting (1963). At least it skips the sex dreams.
Speaking of which, The Haunting of Hill House was turned into a Netflix series, and the stand-alone second season is based on The Turn of the Screw, hence The Haunting of Bly Manor, which I keep forgetting is on the list of things to watch. I’m hoping it’s an improvement.
2 out of 5 attempted drownings.