The Turning (2020)

The Turning first published (in a shorter version) by Little White Lies

“This can’t be real,” exclaims Kate (Mackenzie Davis) as she enters the vast Fairchild estate (supposedly somewhere coastal in the US, but in fact Killruddery House in County Wicklow, Ireland) where she has been hired as live-in governess for young, orphaned Flora (Brooklynn Prince). Indeed, with its outdoor labyrinth, its deathly silent corridors, its forbidden wing and its creepy basement, this place seems to belong as much to the imaginative world of the gothic genre as to any kind of reality. In these hallways, festooned with dolls, portraits, mannequins, statues and other simulacra of the living, as well as with ubiquitous mirrors to catch details that the eye misses, it is easy, as the long-serving Mrs Grose (Barbara Marten) points out to Kate when she first arrives, to ‘get lost’. 

The most immediate reference point here is Henry James’ 1989 novella The Turn of the Screw – also the inspiration for Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), Michael Winner’s prequel The Nightcomers (1972) and most recently William Lima Jr’s Through the Shadow (Através da Sombra, 2016). From James’ work, writers (and twin brothers) Chad and Carey W. Hayes (The Conjuring, 2013) have expressly adapted their screenplay and appropriated the names of all their characters. Yet if the title The Turning points as much to a deviation from source as to the source itself, the story, too, though still distanced from us in time, has nonetheless been considerably updated. Kate may joke that she has not been a live-in governess “since the 1880s”, but in fact the film takes place in 1994 (news of Kurt Cobain’s death is heard in the background). Kate – like her predecessor Miss Jessel (Denna Thomsen) – drives a car, the gates to the estate open electronically, and Flora’s older, more menacing brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) noodles on an electric guitar. 

Yet despite all these signifiers of change and modernity, the past keeps finding a way to impose its ghostly influence on the present. Much as Kate wins over Flora by pointing to the sense of childhood loss that, for all their other differences, they share, and teaching her young ward, as she herself was once taught by her own mother (Karen Egan), to put on a ‘brave face’ as a mask against life’s pressures, the histories of these two women – one abandoned by her father to a mentally ill mother, the other witness to both her parents’ accidental death – will return to haunt them and to send their conjoined narrative down divergent paths. 

For here, as buried secrets rise to the surface, as Kate finds she can no longer trust even what she sees in the mirror, as identities and influences blur, and as the confines of the estate, whether real or otherwise, prove difficult, perhaps impossible, to escape, The Turning may differ in many of its details from James’ original story, but it stays true to the spirit of the novella’s notoriously sustained ambiguities, ultimately leaving the viewer, along with Kate, utterly lost. 

The film, too, has long been stuck in limbo. It began in 2016 under the title Haunted, as a passion production for Steven Spielberg, with Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later, 2007) set to direct, but then, some $5 million into its development, the whole process was restarted and the title altered to The Turning, with a new cast attached and acclaimed music video director Floria Sigismondi, who also made the Joan Jett biopic The Runaways (2010), now at the helm. The finished film was scheduled for an early 2019 release, but shelved, only to resurface, like the corpse at its centre, a year later. 

The reason for this delay may forever remain a mystery, but it might be that there is an uneasiness among today’s distributors about releasing horror cinema that fails to resolve explicitly its heady confusion of the supernatural and the psychological, and to explain fully away its more irrational elements. As generic, genetic and gendered legacies vie to control and dominate the film’s meaning, Sigismondi’s latest has all the rich, spooky atmosphere and shadow play, all the hide-and seek and impossible apparitions, of a well-turned ghost story – but the possibility that it may not even be one will represent the biggest challenge for viewers inclined, like the film’s abusive antagonist Peter Quint (Niall Greig Fulton), to want to pin down the object of their errant desire. The slippery, liquid spaces of equivocation, however, will always be where the uncanny is best realised.

At the heart of The Turning are mother-daughter relationships – and their substitutes – in various permutations, while an absent, abusive father (or at least father-figure) watches from the wings and waits to reassert his malicious control. Whether Kate is conceived in all this as a daughter trying to compensate for the poor mothering (and terrible fathering) that she herself received, or as someone who, like her own mother, is stuck at the bottom of madness’ genetic pool and trying to picture a way out through imaginative doll-house play and artistic creativity, is a question left for us to answer. Viewers may not even be sure, by the end, exactly where or even who Kate is. For while The Turning may not reinvent the creepy wheel, it certainly gives another turn of the screw to James’ unsettling original, while reflecting upon its own themes of transference and projection through a glass darkly.

Enjoyment: Uncanny confusion of the supernatural and the psychological.

In Retrospect:  Well worth waiting for the disorienting end to creep up on you.

© Anton Bitel