Filmed countless times for both the bigscreen and the tube, Henry James’ timeless ghost story still carries a provocative charge. This straightforward, solid adaptation for Masterpiece Theatre brings nothing especially new to the rich material, but fine performances and a seamless production deliver the requisite chills. There may be no burning reason for yet another screen version of the masterful short novel, other than the profound pull of the story, but perhaps that’s reason enough.
Russell Baker’s introductory comments shed some light on the author’s state of mind when he penned “The Turn of the Screw,” but a century later, its central questions remain wide open to interpretation: Are the events unfolding at country house, Bly, visitations from the other side, the expression of a repressed young woman’s hysteria, the effects of child abuse or the machinations of a murderously manipulative household?
Script by Nick Dear places slight emphasis on the central character’s unexpressed sexuality, with more-than-glancing suggestions of her complicity in the dark doings; telepic makes quite clear the young governess’ (Jodhi May) attraction to the bachelor (Colin Firth) who hires her to take care of his orphaned nephew and niece.
Thesps fully exploit the brief scene of flirtation and foreboding, the only one in which the two characters meet. Firth is convincing as the absentee uncle who has “not a penny worth of paternal understanding” and who insists on not being troubled once the new governess assumes her post.
May’s blushing young parson’s daughter thrills at his physical closeness, even as she wonders about the enormity of the responsibility, her first job and the circumstances of her predecessor’s death.
No sooner is she installed as head of the estate than 10-year-old Miles (Joe Sowerbutts) is expelled from school for unstated reasons, and specters of the former governess and another dead servant start making appearances.
The (unnamed) new governess is certain that Miles and his younger sister (Grace Robinson), disturbingly well behaved and as picture-perfect as two kids can be, are also aware of the presence of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, and are under their corrupting spell.
As she pieces together her conspiracy theory, housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Pam Ferris) serves as the young woman’s sounding board, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes doubting.
In its final stages, this is a two-hander, the story reaching its ultimate crisis in the faceoff between the governess and her increasingly defiant charge Miles.
The actors play up the confrontation, and the relationship as a whole, for every ominous ambiguity they’re worth. May is a compelling presence as the devout young woman who, convinced she’s come face to face with evil, is determined to save her “innocent babies” from the ill intentions of the dead lovers.
And as the ultra-polite, “Hamlet”-quoting sprig who addresses his governess as “my dear,” Sowerbutts conveys just the right mix of boyish charm and unnerving knowingness.
Ferris, Firth and Robinson provide strong support.
Under Ben Bolt’s steady direction, this telling of the mystery may lack the stylish, atmospheric horror of the 1961 Deborah Kerr starrer “The Innocents,” perhaps the finest film version of the story, but it is nonetheless a polished rendition of the haunting, enigmatic tale.
Pat Campbell’s production design, David Odd’s cinematography and Sheena Napier’s costumes evoke the idyllic period setting, often in sunny contrast to the story’s psychological shadow realm. The music soundtrack by Adrian Johnston is effective and unobtrusive; like everything else in this production, it refuses to go for the obvious.