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Dear friends and readers,

I've now watched Sandy Welch's powerful 90 minute film rendition of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw three times, and want to recommend it strongly not just as a perceptive reading of the tale (in line with what James said of it in a later preface), but as another of this new 21st century generation of film adaptations:  like three Austen films of 2007 (Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Mansfield Park) as well as  a slightly later group (2008-9, Cranford Chronicles, Return to Cranford, Room with a View), it's short and done within a limited budget (one location for the house and grounds, and the rest in a studio), but at the same time intensely atmospheric, using sophisticated filmic techniques, and concentrating on a community of people, most of whom are powerless and/or vulnerable (and shown to be so), predominantly female.  The latter (the vulnerable, female, seeking refuge) includes longer ones with a larger budget (the 2008 Sense and Sensibility, the recent Emma, Little Dorrit). 

What makes it different, special, is that it's a ghost story, and centers on a destroyed governess with tragic-poignant and scary ending. These last two seem to go together.  Ann is an Jane Eyre who is not rescued, a Lucy Morris (Trollope's Eustace Diamonds) whose attempts to actively fight evil boomerang on her, a Mary Reilly sent to prison at the end because someone should pay for these deaths.  One might usefully compare it to Victorian gothic stories especially by women (Elizabeth Gaskell).  Partly because it is also so similar it gives shape to the group as forming a kind of cycle of films.

Arriving at the train station, Ann (Michelle Dockery), named in the film, she is unnamed in the text, greeted by the butch-female chauffeur, Baines (Wendy Albiston)


It is commentary type adaptation; it departs in a few significant ways.  James's story opens up on a Christmas Eve in the later 19th century, a group of people are telling ghost stories, and one man remembers being told of a fearful one by a governess who has now been dead 20 years; she told him the story 20 years before that about an incident that happened in her life yet further back.  At the time of the telling she had still been respectable and had a decent place somewhere. So we move through recesses of time.

Welch's film-story covers a brief time. We begin looking at a shattered woman in a temporary psychiatric asylum; a psychiatrist, Dr Fisher (played by the deeply empathic Dan Stevens) is taking down a deposition or questioning her.  

As can be seen from the bars and her outfit, our governess is in a temporary prison, a place meant for psychiatrically disturbed people (who we see outside in various postures of suffering

a handcuffed patient, beset by religious coercion)

where she can stay if she will only answer the questions in the way wanted. If she doesn't manage that, she will be sent to prison to face a charge of manslaughter for the boy who has died while in her care, Miles (Josef Lindsay).  This scene of sympathetic questioning is returned to several times during the story:  a flashback told by the governess though without voice over so that once we enter into the past it feels like the present.  It both punctuates turns in the story and frames it ominously as we see Dr Fisher go to consult a man in charge of the asylum, the Professor (Corin Redgrave) who moves from hostility and suspicion of the governess to admitting she could be telling the truth to showing indifference as "someone must pay" and he doesn't want to be bothered helping her.

His cigar is never far from him

At the close when the governess finished her story about her experience of two fearful blighted evil ghosts, the previous governess, Miss Jessel (Katie Lightfoot) and her violent lover, Peter Quint (Edward MacLiam) who (she says) were attempting to take over or else  alluring two children (who may be complicit with them or may be victims), the governess is taken away to another prison to stand trail for murder. We watched her handcuffed and put in a van.  Once walking to the professor Dr Fisher thinks he might have seen Quint in the prison hall; as he watches Ann taken away, one of the guards take on the face and form of Quint and then turns back to a nondescript man. Yes a second person seems to see one of the ghosts and believes the governess.

As seen by Dr Fisher, treated rougly, pushed

If it be thought, this is a simplication of the tale, it's not. As dramatized we have all the ambiguity of James's approach.  No one but the governess at Bly admits to seeing the two ghosts; when at one point Ann thinks she has seen Quint slapping Miss Jessel repeatedly and Miles slapping his sister, Flora (Eva Sayers) in imitation, after having tried to drown her (by keeping her head under water

moment of hysteria between chldren),

and made frantic, when the governess slaps Miles, the housekeeper, Sarah Grose (played briliantly by Sue Johnston) called Ann mad and appears to think the only one committing cruel violence is Ann.  Sometimes the children seem to know the ghosts are there (and grin and look complicit, mischievous spiteful looks in their faces, enjoying the governess's aloneness and perplexity), but sometimes they seem innocent children at play and themselves lonely and bereft of protection or love and sometimes again cruel. 

There is the erotic frustration of James's governess. We first see her visit the children's guardian, the uncle; while telling her never to bother him, he treats her seductively and it's clear she is attracted and longs for him to visit Bly (as he half-promises to do).  In her dream life she imagines him in her bed only to find him turning into Peter Quint.  She leads a repressed life and keeps the children under control by insisting on lessons even in summer.  She is appalled when a letter comes from Miles's school saying that Miles is expelled for "intolerable" conduct, and it's clear she thinks the boy did something sexual, perhaps taught that by Quint.  She takes no steps to find the boy another school; to be fair, how could she?  but she also destroys letters she had the children write their guardian about Miles's desire to go to another school. We also see she is troubled: in her talks with Dr Fisher there are flashbacks to her father who was a bigoted religious tyrant.

An uncanny gothic atmosphere is built up, one as portentous, strangely beautiful, and chilling as James's own. Ann plays the usual Psyche role of wandering around the dark house, which looks ruined and peeling from the outside all damp, up grand mahogany staircases with big balustrades, through narrow corridors (which repeat the angles of the aslyum corridors). Her soft white blouses (ivory, offcolor) add to her feminity and lady-like frail feel.  There's an old grey church on the property, a flower and fennel filled grave yard in which Mrs Grose shows her the gravestones of Miss Jessel (who drowned herself - we see it re-enacted) and Peter Quint; the penultimate scene takes us back to that graveyard where Mrs Grose and Flora look at Miles's gravestone. Peter Quint like some Dracula appears at windows to Ann and is trying to get in -- reminding me of the ghost in Wuthering Heights (the book). It's fantastical, photographed at odd angles frequently, framed by gardens, hedges, flower pots:

During the day, this is the brightest the film gets except during one boating sequence on an oneiric lake under a blue sky.

On the other hand (as in James's tale) importantly, there is much evidence that the ghosts at least did once exist and Peter Quint at least did terrible harm. And then beyond this Welch adds to James's story a complete community of women servants. Her changes remind me of Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly where a whole staff is added to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

and this is more than James's story seen from below.   At least three seem to have been sexually harassed by Quint, and one woman who kills herself while Ann is there appears to have been raped. 

She seems desperate and seems about to say she is haunted, and does say Quint won't leave them alone. 

Ann hears noises in the corridor which sound like violence towards these maids. it's as such moments as well as when Ann goes in search of the chlidren's rooms to see what they are doing, that Mrs Grose suddenly appears and vey frighened as if she knows the two blighted presences are in the house:

There is also much empathy in the lost way Miss Jessel's ghost is presented; here she seems to be re-enacting being driven from the house:

On the other hand, this is not a supportive community. None of the women will openly admit they have seen ghosts.  They will not warn the governess.  They look despairing when she does (once) try to leave, but when she returns, they don't help her.  They leave the house on the last day she tries to fight Quint on her own. Most significantly of all, Mrs Grose acts complicitly on behalf of her employer by never admitting anything she hints at.  Some may say the ending of over-the-top for we see a new governess arrive in just the way Ann had, and Mrs Grose again hand her the keys.

Where Ann saw Miles at the piano, now the new governess sees Flora who tells her "we were waiting for you, with an scary staring expression on her eyes that recalls Miles's:

To call it feminist is not strong enough, partly because the vulnerable include Dr Fisher

Dan Steevens' face registers the emotional pain of existence

the psychiatry system, the children, and (as in James), the governess seems to feel she has seen the face of sheer evil in Quint.  It is socially concerned, and speaks to the way mentally troubled people are being dismissed to pharmacology and bullying (called CBT or some such word) today.  It records the plight of governesses in the 19th century and women in analogous positions in today's various worlds.  

So the emphasis is on powerless women and the two genuinely powerful people, the Professor, the uncle, the Governess's father and prison priest, and police officers are clearly male.  The Professor disdains the governess, and the uncle-master (we are told) knew Quint harassed the women and didn't care. If he doesn't harass them himself, he can't be bothered as he can get more attractive women.  I felt the key relationship (and the got star biilling) was that of the governess and housekeeper. becomes central. The housekeeper is complicit to protect herself and because (as she says -- echoing Dr Fisher and even the Professor) no one cares and she at least keeps everyone seeming civilized most of the time.  Words to the effect.  But what are we to think and feel when she greets a new governess?  Is this the malicious repetivie patterns of a ghost story projecting a Kafka universe?  or a woman who lets others be abused; she dismisses the servant's suicide with a story about how the servant was deranged because she lost so many relatives during WW1.  Maybe.

I hope I have conveyed something of the power of this one.  By contrast, the women of the Cranford Chronicles and The Return to Cranford (which I hope to write about eventually) seem to be and are powerful within their sphere.  They do support one another. They too have limits.  Martha (Claudie Blakely) dies in childbirth and it's expected she get incessantly pregnant, and in the Return we have two young heroines who nearly don't get the young heroes (a romance motif as the young heroes buy into the values which would keep them enclosed in their family hierarchies). Still as in the Austen films, Room with a View, Little Dorrit, the women win out

Comic harm in Return to Cranford

while in The Turn of the Screw, only some are holding on and that by knowingly letting other women take the hits.

Ann looking down at the cook and chauffeur (who might be lovers?), the cook is often caught looking with pity at the governess.

James's preface tells us he saw the ghosts as real on some level and, "blighted fearful presences," felt for the governess, and wanted to create an atmosphere of intense evil.  All this Welch and her team tried for an succeeded in doing; perhaps there was too much emphasis on Quint as an embodiment of male vampiric nightmares as felt by the governess, but that was in line with the psychiatric perspective of Dr Fisher and the erotic dreams of the Welch's governess in the film.

I also went looking at criticism of The Turn of the Screw, thinking to myself Welch probably did. I had no trouble finding misogynistic readings (by older Jamesian scholars, like Gordon Putt) where the governess certainly should have been put in prison as deranged, repressed, a witch-imagination. It seemed to me Welch had read Woolf on the atmosphere of the landscape.  Those which were "balanced" on whose "fault" it was (as is Britten's opera), still did not come up with a reading as pro- the disenfranchised of society of this film. The film is in fact about our world today; where the others demonstrate the strength of community, this shows its limitations. 

Archetypal Madonna and boy


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 15th, 2010 11:36 am (UTC)
Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey
From Elissa on Janeites: "governessing" was certainly viewed as at worst a gothically terrifying experience and at best a tedious one to be endured until possible marriage and "release" by the Bronte sisters writing a scant thirty years after JA. Jane Eyre, in fact carries strong resonances of Austen's novels with Jane hired as governess to a young ward (Agnes) of Mr. Rochester's, who is the illegitimate daughter of a French woman - overtones of Brandon and his ward Eliza II, daughter of Eliza I - and with the name of the housekeeper who hires Jane Eyre - Mrs. Fairfax.
Were Mr. Rochester to be as cruel as we are led to fear at first, the governess/heroine would indeed have been in dire danger. In real life, her employer would more likely have taken great advantage of her than have become devoted to and married her. The heroine of Anne Bronte's novel, Agnes Grey, presents us with what I think may be a realistic unfolding of the life of a governess/lady teacher at the time - except for the ending, which I won't give away.

In Jane Eyre, especially, we have the connection of being a governess with the theme of slavery from Mr. Rochester's mad first wife locked in the attic, a refugee from the cane plantations across "the wild Sargasso Sea." Many have felt Jane to be the direct heir to Fanny Price - that is to Fanny Price had she not returned to her uncle's good graces and be allowed to reenter the grounds of Mansfield Park and marry Edmund.

In any event, the life experience of all the Bronte sisters serves as a cautionary tale for poor women of that time, even educated daughters of clergymen of the Church of England, who had no husbands, no protectors, and no source of private income - the Bronte sisters, even with their publications, nearly starved to death.

Mar. 17th, 2010 12:30 pm (UTC)
Thank you
I enjoyed reading your insightful review of Sandy Welch's film adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw. Thank you.
Mar. 22nd, 2010 02:09 am (UTC)
Governess theme: Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey
Tammie, I was away and unable to thank you for your apprecation until now. I am glad you enjoyed the blog.

Judy, thank you too. Yes I had my usual rejuvenating time. I have made a few women friends now and this time went to Santa Fe with Jim and one of these friends. Talked to others. A high point in the sessions was an inspiring session on Stael's Corinne.

You've tempted me now and I fell and got myself Welch's Jane Eyre. I will compare them too. I have been curious about the Jodhi-May Turn of the Screw because May is in it; what stops me is the DVDs I can find in the US (used) all say "as show on PBS." That means the original BBC version can be crudely cut. I used to dislike HKHWR until I saw the genuine article. In turn I advise getting Kathryn Hughes's Victorian Governess. What's chilling are the parallels in a woman's getting a decently middle class job/niche today. Hughes reveals why this job was so excruciating -- in just about every way. Mary Smith, the character added to both sets of Cranford films is based on an autobiography by one Mary Smith who was a governess in the Victorian period. Very moving, and she had to have been a writer and lived in London too. I got this from the Kathyn Hughes's book.

On the theme of terrible things happening in this house combined with the sunlit garden: think of Mary Reilly where the garden is so desperate a business and then back to The Secret Garden.

Do not you love Dan Stevens. If you've not seen it you must Line of Beauty.


Edited at 2010-03-22 02:31 am (UTC)
Mar. 31st, 2010 01:03 pm (UTC)
turn of the Screw, 1999
Dear Judy and anyone reading this site,

I did watch the Turn of the Screw by Nick Dear, with Ben Bolt as director, Martin Turner producer.
It's as gripping as Sandy Welch's.

Some would say it's closer to James's story. It is a transposition type adaptation. Nothing added, no new frame as the psychiatrist and prison sentence in Welch's; the film does not name the governess, tells us nothing about a cruel repressive bigoted background. Like James. you can come away with a strong sense this governess is also half-mad with sexual repression, attributing to the children sordid sex which horrifies her and the children are made correspondingly less evil. The key I thought was the housekeeper (Pam Ferris) who in this one seems more innocent, not seeing the ghosts most of the time and thus not exploiting and using the governess as a barrier and front to take care of children she the governess can't deal with. You can see as she is on the way to see the guardian, she is already half-traumatized -- which she's not in Sandy Welch's film.

On the other hand, like the 2008 film there is far more explicit sympathy for the women. The film opens in the dark (all these new films are in the dark -- realistic because no electric light), this time on a bridge and we watch a distraught young woman commit suicide by hurling herself over. Miss Jessel is throughout shown as a ravaged victim. If the governess is wild with sexual repression and crazed ideas about sex, the ghosts are really there, and again Peter Quint a nightmare evil figure. Again the guardian, played subtly by Colin Firth (more believable than Welch's) not as a sexual harasser but simply not wanting to be bothered and willing to pay for it, and that is chilling in its way, more chilling than the actively egoistic man of the Welch scene.

What this one has that Welch's doesn't is a more wild scary story. It scared me a lot more; this is more what James invented as a ghost story.

I haven't been able to find time to read a book of essays on The Screw, a famous casebook. I hope to get there before this summer, but watching these films certainly whets my appetite for James, especially this last one. By not rationalizing, by not offering a modern take, no matter how socially concerned and empathetic with women at the time, what this one did was make the alert person watching who has read James aware the governess Is James. Look at that still. The expression is a person grimly holding her own through life, holding on; it reminds me of an expression I've seen in a photo of James in a crumpled suit late in life sitting on a chair.

She is his surrogate, the left out person, the ignored, the one asked to live a false life and watch those around her live the lives they might want. When the boy wants to go to school again, we feel Jodhi May as governess left out. Quint is the beast in the closet made so.

Cheers (I guess) to all,
Apr. 2nd, 2010 07:54 am (UTC)
Dear Ellen, reading your comments, I now realise that I did see this version of ToS when it was originally shown on TV here, but have forgotten most of it - all that sticks in my mind really is Pam Ferris as the housekeeper. I will hope to get hold of it and watch it with the other one still fresh in my mind. I am very interested in all you say about the contrasts and similarities between the two versions, and about the governess as the person left outside. I did like Mark Umbers as the uncle in the Sandy Welch version - it seemed to me as if him being so sexually aggressive, behind the charm, made Quint seem like his surrogate, the ugliness he keeps beneath that smooth surface.
Apr. 2nd, 2010 12:57 pm (UTC)
Turn of the Screen 1999 and 2009
Dear Judy,

Yes the acting of the guardian-uncle in Welch's makes him a parallel to Peter Quint, and this darkens and deepens the male patterning. I appreciated it -- let's say. But Firth's interpretation is more in keeping with James's ambiguity; in act the uncle just seems a shallow indifferent man, whom the governess is (foolishly? naively? pathetically?) drawn to. In James's story remember the governess got another better job and told the story to someone years ago who saw her doing well and it's been years since then. So in James the uncle did not blame the governess or at least we have no reason to think he did.

I take it back about that Casebook. It's filled with one opinion and objections: Edmund Wilson's famous Freudian take, which was in effect a startling new attack on her. Before that no one discussed the woman for real; there was little discussion and it was treated as simply a scary ghost story. It's apparently hard to find a feminist or woman-centered take unless you read recent books on James. I recommended on Trollope19thCStudies Adapting Henry James to screen, and surely there'll be a chapter on The Turn of the Screw.

Thank you for responding. I'm remiss too because I don't go over to your blog enough -- even though I do enjoy it every time.

Nov. 20th, 2010 02:26 pm (UTC)
the 1961 Innocents -- Clayton, Mortimer &c
"The Innocents" -- Jack Clayton, John Mortimter. &c

I did see _The Innocents_ about two nights ago. The aesthetics (the way the woman were shot in darkness and light) and their gestures, especially the governess, reminded me of the 1961 Helman's Children's Hour film we discussed here maybe a couple of years ago now?
Hellman's play was similarly transformed into a similarly hateful film about women who do not want penetrative sex (this point is made in _The Innocents_, for the governess clearly towers over Miles and would dominate him were he to succumb to her).

It does achieve the unnerving despite the articificial aesthetics (for us today) of the sets, hair-does and costumes. I recommend as instructive in how to James's tale into a tale of a witch: Deborah Kerr is first seen as a pair of intense hands stretching out, looking eerily almost gnarled, and last scene, after a full mouth-kiss on the boy she has just killed, putting out those hands again:


At important hinge points in the film, James's original text is changed so that nowhere does Mrs Grose ever acknowledge that the Miss Giddens (our governess is named) acknowledge any information about the appearance of Quint the governess had about the ghosts she can only have gotten through seeing him, nowhere ever credit the governess. Lines are kept which blacken the governess (she's hateful, it's her fault they are now unhappy, since she came they are miserable -- all given to Flora), and the end scene the words changed so the boy does not address "you devil" to Quint, but first say he sees nothing and then says "you devil" to Miss Giddens. It's not a paradox that the ghost for Miss Jessel seems a melancholy pathetic kind of Jane Eyre type: you see she's okay, she went in for male sexuality even if at the cost of her reputation and life.

The one thing that was heartening is to compare Dear and company's 1999 film and then Welch's commentary 2009. It did not take long after James's death to make the tale into something misogynistic and while the 1999 and 2009 films do some work in getting back to the original text and (2009) reading it out with the preface in mind (but omitting that the governess went on to teach for 50 more years and then first wrote her account 20 years ago), I saw in my class how many of them worked hard to find essays which damned the governess. Watching Wright's Atonement (film from book) I noticed it too damns a female at the center who reacts negatively to male sexuality and makes a numinous goddness (Keira Knightley) the woman who is absolute in her fierceness and submission.


Jan. 17th, 2011 08:04 am (UTC)
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