The essence of any great ghost story is the ambiguity of whether the supernatural could be a real presence, or is purely in the mind.
Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw as a magazine serial in 1898. It was an instant success, possibly because it was an easy read, but certainly for its impact on the reader’s imagination.
A wealthy uncle hires a governess for his orphaned niece and nephew, Flora and Miles, who are living at his rural estate. She is told that her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and a groundsman, Peter Quint, both died in mysterious circumstances.
She then learns that the boy has been expelled from boarding school for his behaviour, and gradually realises that the deceased pair exert an evil influence over the children.
The housekeeper, Mrs Grose, insists the children are innocents, implying the governess has an over-active imagination.
In the past few weeks, I have viewed eight movie and TV versions as background for Wellington film-maker Alex Galvin’s adaptation (Admit One Entertainment). He is known for When Night Falls (2007), about a serial killer of nurses in Wairarapa, and the sci-fi thriller Eternity (2012), set in Wellington and Hong Kong.
The most admired version is Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), filmed at Sheffield Park Gardens in East Sussex, and starring Deborah Kerr.
The script, largely written by In Cold Blood’s Truman Capote, takes a Southern Gothic and Freudian interpretation of the relationship between the governess and Miles, as well as the apparitions of Jessell and Quint.
Kerr is older in appearance than James’s character, and more recent versions feature women in their 20s or younger. These productions put differing interpretations on the relationships between the governess (or tutor/teacher in modern-day settings) and the children, and with the housekeeper.
For example, The Turning (2020, Neon rental and Sky Movies) highlights the children’s manipulative and bizarre behaviour, as well as the tutor’s fears of inheriting her mother’s insanity.
In a Dark Place (2006, Amazon Prime Video) implies the young art teacher is a child abuser, arising from her own background, as well as arousing feelings in the not-much-older housekeeper.
Lauren Bacall definitely passes for late middle age in the Spanish-set period piece Presence of Mind (1999, Amazon Prime Video), which focuses on the governess and Miles.
By contrast, Michael Winner’s prequel The Nightcomers (1971, You Tube) explores Quint’s treatment of Miss Jessell, and the malign effect on the children.
Galvin strips all these versions, plus four TV productions (in 1974, 1999, 2009 and Netflix’s recent The Haunting of Bly Manor), back to a bare-bones drama set in Wellington’s historic Opera House.
A replacement actress (Greer Phillips) arrives late for a dress rehearsal, and is instructed by the producer ( Ralph Johnson) to recite her part as the governess.
This novel twist then introduces the other characters, plus impressive visual and sound effects, to recount the story in a compelling way that leaves, as James intended, an open-ended conclusion.
Ratings: The Turn of the Screw: Mature audiences. 85 minutes. The Haunting of Bly Manor: 16+ (9 episodes).
Promising Young Woman
A gritty thriller that is headed for Oscar recognition, by virtue of its feminist revenge theme and embrace of the MeToo movement, which is heavily promoted by Hollywood celebrities. This does not detract from Carey Mulligan’s performance in the lead role, or the skills of English writer-director Emerald Fennell, who was behind the second season of Killing Eve. Mulligan’s character was traumatised when her friend became the victim of a Roastbusters-like incident at medical school. Now in her 30s, and still living at home with her parents, she engineers encounters with men to mete out retribution, culminating with those responsible for ruining her life.
Rating: Restricted to audiences over 18. 113 minutes.
Naomi Watts repeats her role as an Australian mother whose holiday in Thailand brings life-changing tragedy. In The Impossible (2012) she battled to save her family in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. This time, she is playing the real-life Sam Bloom, who is crippled after falling off a hotel balcony. Back home, at Sydney’s northern beaches suburb of Newport, she confines herself to bed or a wheelchair, seeing herself as a burden on her husband and their two sons. That changes when one of the boys adopts an injured magpie, which they call Penguin. The father, photographer Cameron Bloom (Andrew Lincoln), generated widespread interest with a book describing how the bird’s playful behaviour and resilience lifted the family’s spirits. Sam transforms her former love of surfing into success as a kayaker, under a sympathetic coach (Rachel House). This is a fulfilling feel-good story, marred only by the decision to use the actual Bloom residence, which has spectacular views, but which results in poorly lit interior scenes.
Rating: Parental guidance. 95 minutes.
One Night in Miami
Also tipped for an Oscar or two is this star-powered line-up, at least in its real-life personalities, based on Kemp Powers’s play that fictionalised a post-match gathering in 1964, when Cassius Clay (as he was then) unexpectedly beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight boxing championship. The host was black power advocate Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who was planning to break away from the Nation of Islam and to announce that Clay (Eli Goree) would become Muhammad Ali. Also attending, but more interested in race politics than religion, were American gridiron and soon Hollywood action star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr). Each has to critique and justify their respective views, giving an insight into racial attitudes at the time. Malcolm X was assassinated 12 months later, and Cooke would not live to see out the year. Director Regina King, star of Jerry Maguire (1996) and in her feature debut, brings out the best in her strong cast.
Amazon rating: 18+. 114 minutes.