While recent film versions of Henry James’ novels by such directors as Jane Campion, Agnieszka Holland and James Ivory have met with wildly divergent critical receptions, it’s hard to recall a more wrongheaded attempt to transfer the author to the screen than Spanish newcomer Antoni Aloy’s “Presence of Mind,” a blundering adaptation of “The Turn of the Screw.” Everything that’s subtle and open to interpretation in James’ novel of evil, possession and ghosts is lurid and obvious here, with a star turn by Sadie Frost that’s unauthoritative to say the least and arch support from Lauren Bacall that gives the drama a ripple of unintentionally camp humor.
An unusually ambitious first feature, Aloy’s adaptation of James’ story of a governess engaged to look after two orphaned children shifts the action from a British country house to an island off the Spanish coast. The only real addition to the novel concerns the governess’s father (Jack Taylor), who dies at the beginning of the film, but whose disturbingly inhumane treatment of her is revealed in heavy-handed Gothic nightmare sequences, troweling on even more factors to spook the put-upon heroine.
Interviewed for the job by the children’s uncle (a quietly hammy Harvey Keitel), the governess feels an attraction to the man that gives rise to some darkly sexual fantasy interludes. The seemingly kindly, rather ambiguous housekeeper of the novel, Mrs. Grose, becomes a downright sinister figure here in Mado Remei (Bacall), whose heavy eyebrows work overtime with insinuations about the evil infesting the estate and its grip on the two beautiful, petulant children (Nilo Mur, Ella Jones). Slowly, the governess pieces together events from the past, putting a face to the household’s sense of intense evil and sin in a callous former valet (Spanish director Agusti Villaronga) who was the lover of her predecessor, Miss Jessel (Dayne Danika), both of whom are dead.
In “The Turn of the Screw,” James leaves it for the reader to decide if these ghosts and their evil agendas truly exist for the children or are merely the hysterical fabrications of the governess. Aloy, however, whips the whole scenario up into an overblown Hammer House of Horror frenzy full of dangling cadavers, leering specters and hints of incest and pedophilia that would have James pirouetting in his grave. Unfolding to bursts of lugubrious opera, this is coupled with a generally tired, TV-literary-adaptation approach, replete with predictably lush period trappings and fussy costumes.
Bacall creeps about like Lurch in “The Addams Family,” indefatigably launching cold, imperious stares and furtive glances, but top honors for acting ineptitude go here to Frost. The British actress’s thin voice, dull, contemporary intonations and remarkably inexpressive features make her a wooden centerpiece for this ripely silly affair, which fails to come even close to the chilling atmosphere of Jack Clayton’s 1961 Deborah Kerr starrer “The Innocents,” based on the same novel.