I loved so much of The Turning right up until I didn’t. A moody and atmospheric gothic ghost story it never tips it’s hand nor cheats; until the last five minutes. “Wow, them in the end and they’ll forgive you for everything,” as the old saying goes. But if the ending misses the mark we’ll liable to hold a grudge.
Floria Sigismondi doesn’t have an easy task. Adapted from a Henry James story, The Turn of the Screw, it is a story rooted in ambiguity. Part of the story’s legacy is the argument by academics and devoted readers on exactly what the story is about. One argument, which seems to be championed by Sigismondi, is that it’s not about any one thing. Rather, it’s an exercise in creating a mood and an unsettling ambiance.
The lack of a clear theme in Sigismondi’s The Turning, however, doesn’t hurt it, quite the contrary. She creates a mood and a world so completely that we’re more concerned with what’s happening on screen because it has us so tightly wound up. In other words, it’s an effective work of psychological empathy.
Set in the ’90s immediately after the death of Kirk Cobain we are introduced to Kate (Mackenzie Davis). A teacher she has been asked by her school to take a position of a nanny for a young girl Flora Fairchild (Brooklyn Prince). The previous nanny having vanished under mysterious circumstances.
She just has to visit her mother at the local mental institution and then she’s off to Fairchild Manor. Once we get to the manor the tension in The Turning begins to coil. Cary and Chad Hayes have taken the classic tale and not so much updated it as luxuriate in it.
The time period doesn’t really matter. It’s the slow unraveling of Kate as she becomes haunted by ghosts within the halls of the Fairchild Manor. Ghosts that Flora, and her recently expelled older brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard), might be aware of. The Hayes brothers layer each scene with just a tad more information, like breadcrumbs, to tease Kate’s curiosity about the previous nanny, Miss Jessel (Denna Thompson) and the death of the stable master Mister Quint (Naill Greig Fulton).
Part of why The Turning works so well are because of how Sigismondi and her cameraman David Ungaro place the camera. At times they set the camera at a distance so we can see shadows moving behind Kate as she walks the halls at night. Sometimes the camera catches Kate’s reflection in the mirror as wisps of smoke caused it to look fuzzy, like another face is there.
Ungaro and Sigismondi create a palpable atmosphere of dread within the frame. There are some jump scares, this is a horror film after all, but they are used cleverly. For myself I found myself jolted more than a few times if only because again, Sigismondi and her crew do an excellent job slowly coiling and setting up the anticipation that these bursts of panic or fear act as a valve letting off steam.
In one scene Kate is attacked by unseen disembodied hands. It is dark and the cuts are quick, but Ungaro’s camera holds us close and tight so we are in Kate’s personal space as she flinches and squeals. The scene is far from exploitative, which it would have undoubtedly been if a man had directed. Instead, Sigismondi treats the hands groping Kate scene, much as she does the haunting, as harassment and abuse.
She has taken Henry James’ tale of eerie dread and moody set pieces and infused the modern sensibility of what it’s like to be a woman whose voice and concerns are constantly ignored. Consider, how even the housekeeper and longtime servant of the Fairchild’s Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten) dismisses her and overrules her. Mrs. Grose sees Kate as too “modern” and “weak” and so she tells her to “take control”.
Mrs. Grose doesn’t help she merely gives lectures. Kate is left to fend against Miles herself. Wolfhard’s Miles is a creep and an object of pity. He’s a creep because of how he leers at Kate and treats her less like an adult and more like an underling. Yet, we learn that he was great friends with the brute Mr. Quint and at times we seem him literally shaking at the sound of the man’s name.
Abuse is another theme bubbling beneath the surface. The mental scars of Mr. Quint’s reign on the manor seem to run the deepest in Miles. After the children’s parents died Quint moved into the master bedroom and began to eye and harass Miss Jessel. Kate reads Miss Jessel’s diary and can see the effect Quint is having not just on her but on Miles and Flora as well.
Nightmares plague Kate as well as Flora and Miles. The bond Miles and Flora share seem forged in horror and pain. Aside from the setting and atmosphere Sigismondi seems to have crafted a fraught and fascinating relationship between Prince and Wolfhard’s characters. Their relationship ebbs and flows at times with the older sibling calling the shots while other times the young girl seems to exert some control over her unruly brother.
Prince and Wolfhard play off each other and find ways to make Flora and Miles seem believable. Wolfhard is at his best here, though he is normally among the best in whatever he’s in. But here he shines particularly because Miles is at once the abuser and the victim. Violence and abuse are cyclical and he is merely perpetuating what he’s been taught by Quint. Flora for her part is a precocious girl but is struggling not just with her own girlhood but with the desolation and fear she has of both her house and her brother.
Mackenzie Davis is easily one of my favorite movie stars right now, even though, she seems to be in wonderfully interesting movies that mainstream audiences seem to avoid like the plague. She plays Kate’s decline as if she was a wounded child. Her confidence slowly eroding into indecision and hysterics. Yet, Davis never plays Kate as pitiful, weak, or stupid. She plays it with a sensitive strength which makes us want to follow her down the path into madness.
It would be easy to toss The Turning aside because of its botched ending. An ending defended by the director as an attempt to leave the audience reeling and unsure. The problem is that for the entirety of the film we have been dealing with the notion that Kate is actually being haunted. Ghosts are real and Fairchild Manor needs Jesus in the worst way.
But Sigismondi and the Hayes’ ending switches gears far too quickly and, for my money, erroneously. I mentioned before about the jump scares acting like a pressure release on a valve-the ending acts like someone letting the air out of a balloon. Anticlimactic and jarring it almost undoes all the mastery which came before it.
I loved too much of the movie to toss it in the trash heap of failures. Some might be put off by all the themes without any clear throughline or thesis. But storytelling is akin to magic, not in the Harry Potter way with spells and all that. But in the very real practical stage shows filled with cheap gimmicks and breathtaking illusions.
It’s not what the movie is about; it’s how the movie is about what it’s about. The Turning looks at loss, abuse, and womanhood in a way that draws the audience in and all the while creates a specific heightened and effective mood to help carry it home. It’s not wholly successful but I admired much of the film and was impressed by Sigismondi’s ability to create atmosphere and tension seemingly out of thin air.
I can’t say you won’t leave the film infuriated. But as time has passed, I find myself ignoring the ending and instead of remembering how tense I was through most of the movie. Or how Sigismondi and her team conjured dread and tension seemingly out of thin air at times while also making me catch my breath with some little bit of busy work in the background with either lighting or slight special effects.
The Turning is a flawed movie but so elegantly crafted I can’t help but love it anyway. We live in a world where we, much like Amy March, demand greatness or nothing at all. By doing that we are more likely to throw out things far more interesting and lingering. Maybe that’s why we do it so we don’t have to sit with them afterward and we go on. Whatever the reason Sigismondi’s The Turning is likely to stay with you long after you leave the theater. Though if you leave before the ending it wouldn’t hurt either.