[SPOILERS] Another remake of Henry James' classic 1898 ghost story, this BBC adaptation by Sandy Welch was a fairly successful interpretation of the story (with a few clever twists to embellish the book's Freudian subtext, like bringing the action forward to post-World War I, so that the haunted house was entirely without male residents.) A governess called Ann (Michelle Dockery) is sent to the country estate of Bly to look after her hermitic employer's spooky children, Miles (Josef Lindsay) and Flora (Eva Sayer), where she encounters secretive staff – such as ageing housekeeper Sarah Grose (Sue Johnston) -- and later begins to suspect that a former felonious groundskeeper called Quint (Edward MacLiam) has returned from the dead...
The Turn Of The Screw is a classic story that's influenced so many things that a great deal of its narrative, ideas and scare tactics feel over familiar and predictable. Maybe you've seen the revered 1961 movie, re-titled The Innocents, or notice the similarities to Alejandro Amenábar 2001 hit The Others with Nicole Kidman? Even if you haven't, the basic idea of a haunted English country house, containing two flaxen-haired siblings, cagey female staff, empty gardens, still ponds, and ghostly presences staring through windows, are things that have come to feel quite clichéd in today's pop-culture.
For that reason, a great deal of this 90-minute special felt too cosy and familiar, although that did give things a certain charm. However, the story felt stretched in places (a snappier 70-minutes would have worked better), and I always find it exasperating when people in these stories react in unrealistic ways toward the supernatural. It also didn't help that the children, who are supposed to be victims that need protecting from Quint's malevolent spirit, felt very unsympathetic and annoying. It's the kind of story where everyone and everything seems hell-bent on acting as strangely and irrationally as possible, just to give Ann just cause to doubt her sanity. But that's a key part of the story, admittedly – is the governess insane, paranoid, and projecting her fantasies onto other people? Of course, there's more evidence to say it's a clear-cut case of haunting, with Quint returning to try and possess young Miles so he can continue his debauched lifestyle.
Michelle Dockery was very good in the lead role; likeable and relatable, so we were definitely with her every step of the way. Sue Johnston was fine as the guilt-stricken housekeeper, and the two children were brilliantly cast – Josef Lindsay looking like a negative of the kid in The Omen, and Eva Sayer having a peculiarly adult-looking head on young shoulders. The direction from Tim Fywell was pretty good, giving things enough of a modern-day touch to ensure a few of the spookier moments landed their punch without looking too misplaced in a period story. Welch's script was also very well-balanced, even if things started to grow a little tedious around the 60-minute mark, and I personally don't think the climax to James' story is gripping enough to have warranted the slow build-up.
Overall, The Turn Of The Screw was a thoroughly decent and creepy little ghost story, nicely put together by all concerned. Most of its "faults" can be attributed to the fact Henry James story has bled through so many subsequent films and television shows that the original now feels hackneyed in retrospect –- so you have to keep in mind this was written in the 19th-century before all of its imitators. However, I'm not convinced this BBC adaptation succeeded in bringing anything particularly fresh and interesting to the story, beyond a few welcome tweaks, so I have to admit I was rarely unsettled or frightened by anything presented here. But still, entertained and mildly unnerved isn't a bad response to have.
30 December 2009 BBC1/BBC HD, 9pm
written by: Sandy Welch directed by: Tim Fywell starring: Michelle Dockery (Ann), Sue Johnston (Sarah Grose), Dan Stevens (Dr Fisher), Nicola Walker (Carla), Eva Sayer (Flora), Josef Lindsay (Miles), Mark Umbers (Master), Corin Redgrave (Professor), Wendy Albiston (Baines), Sarah Buckland (Diane), Edward MacLiam (Peter Quint), Katie Lightfoot (Emily Jessel), Nellie Burroughes (Abused Maid), Peter Bygott (Ann's Father), Honor Cargill-Martin (Young Ann) & Cameron Stewart (Police Inspector)