Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Turn of the Screw


Dir: Ben Bolt (The Big Town)

Masterpiece Theater adaptation of the Henry James novel. This is a very effective and thought provoking work. Clearly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, there is little about the acting, set design or direction that stands out. The piece is in line with many other very capable, well worth watching television productions. But here the writing and editing has taken the work of a notoriously difficult author and packaged the main themes very well.

Jodhi May (who has made a career of Victorian period pieces) is hired as a nanny for some rich orphans. The kids, it turns out, were previously in the charge some caretakers who were ambiguously bad. When those dead caretakers return as ghosts, fraternizing again with the children, May must defend the young ones. Not from the supernatural per se, mind you, but from the corrupting influence of bad examples which will certainly make the kids rotten and send them to hell.

It might sound a little absurd, but the story works very effectively as a parable for the overprotection of children and the attempt by proper society to sequester itself from evil, fornication, and bad influence. With contemporary eyes, I think James was alluding to molestation, but that is never unpacked. In any event, it is the nanny's desperation to shield the children from corruption, and the toll it takes on herself and the especially the children, that makes this an interesting pyschological narrative. The main point, that you can screw up someone just as much cordoning them off them letting them run free, is well taken.

The two child actors are fine, especially young Jow Sowerbutts (yikes, sorry about the name kid) as Miles. The uber maturity that authors write children with here actually works, as he exploits the nanny's puritanical nature in his bid for freedom and self expression.

This is one of those films that makes me want to read the original book. The writing in this film is very taught, and I wonder what was left behind. James was famous for exposing the psychological motivations of his characters (in such an impenetrable and long winded way that I find his books quite the struggle), but it is in those motivations that I found the greatest entertainment.

Get great source material, and then get out of the way. That's the recipe for a pretty good picture.