I don’t believe I have ever read a single word written by Henry James. I have a BA in English so presumably have read something, but if that is true, it made absolutely no impression on me. Sadly, this adaptation of James’ story The Turn of the Screw is likely to reach the same fate. It is utterly unremarkable in every way.
It stars Michelle Dickery and Dan Stevens and came out about a year before both became huge stars in Downton Abbey. Retroactively, the film suffers from their stardom because I expect so much more from both of them. Neither of them are bad exactly, but neither are they very good, or even interesting. Had this adaptation starred two other people, unknowns, then I would have perhaps given it a better grade. I still wouldn’t have been much good, mind you, but my expectations would’t have suffered they way they have. I like both actors in Downton and seeing their names in this film got me excited (something Henry James has never managed to do.) The fact that they are both so appallingly average here kind of sours the whole enterprise.
The story, well the story is so old I don’t feel the need to go into much detail, concerns Ann, a governess (Dockery,) who takes a new job watching after two children at a beautiful country home. Soon, she begins hearing tales of a mad man who once stalked the grounds, taking advantage of the maids and generally wrecking havoc. He died before the story begins but his ghost has been haunting the place ever since. Or has it? Perhaps it's all in Ann’s crazed mind.
It is told in flashbacks with Ann being held in an institution telling the story to Dr. Fisher (Stevens) who at first does not believe her, but over the course of the film begins to understand she might not be crazy after all.
Apparently in the book this is all very ambiguous and the story ends without the reader knowing whether the ghosts were real or just figments of Ann’s imagination. This film, if the “Ghost Story” addition to the title isn’t a big enough hint, wants us to believe that the ghosts are very much real. It also juices up the sex. Whereas in the book there have been critics who found hints of Ann’s sexual repression causing her hallucinations, here we get lots of juicy, naked flashbacks and fantasies. Including one rather disturbing moment when she makes out with her young ward because she imagines him to be possessed by the older (and of course much sexier) madman of old.
No doubt the producers sexied the story up a bit to bring in the youngsters and folks like myself who are not familiar with the James story and expect it to be another "stuffy women in bustles" tale. Yet in doing so they likely are angering the purists, and let's face it, you can make the ghosts more real and unbuckle those bustles all you like but you’re never going to draw huge audience with this sort of thing.
Well, unless you're Downton Abbey and you know how to use your Michelle Dockerys and your Dan Stevens to perfection.