Surrealistic music video director Floria Sigismondi (The Handmaid's Tale) puts her personal spin on a classic Henry James ghost story with The Turning. This adaption, written by brothers Carey W. and Chad Hayes (The Conjuring), loses touch a lot more than any of the portrayed characters.
Young governess Kate (Mackenzie Davis) is hired to take care of 9-year-old Flora (Brooklynn Prince) at the secluded estate where she lives with her servant Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), and her brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) who is currently at boarding school. Kate manages to start a tentative friendship with Flora until Miles is suddenly expelled from school, and things take a darker turn. Now Kate must identify the difference between sanity and madness, both in herself and others, as she attempts to figure out whether the natural or the supernatural is holding sway over the children, and perhaps even herself.
Despite the many positive aspects of the film, the script drags it down considerably. There are multiple setups of story that dead-end and locations are not sufficiently identified in a tale that seems lost in its own attempt to be smart. This makes for a rambling, episodic screenplay that borders on nonsensical. There are moments that border on suspense and horror, but each attempt falls slightly short of crawling up the spine unless the specifics of a scene trigger a viewer's phobia. There is an attempt to bring things together at the climax, but it stalls, and then suddenly changes direction in a way that is both confusing and sloppy. The result will likely leave the audience stunned, with a general feeling of being simultaneously unfulfilled and full of questions.
There is nothing wrong with Sigismondi's direction, and she does well with willing actors and the best she can with the dreary script. She has a firm sense of what should be creepy, given the right tale behind it. She manages the cast with ease, creating a setting and mood that could have otherwise been a positive mark in the genre. You can see her hand in the direction of the exceptional camera work, including brilliant use of light, shadow, and perspective.
Finn Wolfhard has become a young actor to watch, and this turn as a disconnected, possibly sociopathic, teenager is an excellent performance to add to his resume. Brooklynn Prince's Flora alternates between innocent, serious, playful, and occasionally traumatized with ease. But the standout is Davis in the lead as a woman driven to the brink of madness and haunted in more ways than one.
The story, originally set near the onset of the 20th Century, is moved to 1994 for no explainable reason, other than to use grunge music to aid the setting. If this is the reason, it seems appropriate, although underused. The genre is interspersed amongst sinister orchestration that helps to keep the story moving better than it otherwise would have.
The Turning, with its high-quality direction, acting, cinematography, and soundtrack would have had so much potential to be a true icon of the suspenseful horror genre. Unfortunately, it's prevented by a script consisting almost exclusively of "not quite" moments and an ending so obscure that it doesn't sew them together. Audience members would be better off turning to the original story for entertainment.