Why You Need to Turn Away from The Turning (2020)
A review from someone who should have known better
I don’t know when I first saw an advertisement for The Turning, but as soon as I heard that it was based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, I knew I wanted to go see it. I love Henry James, and I especially love that novella.
And, yes, I love it because the ending is so ambiguous. Were the ghosts real, and were they really trying to take possession of the children? Was the governess just really that crazy? There are unanswered questions, but that’s okay. Those unanswered questions don’t detract from the enjoyment of the story. In fact, they enhance it.
That’s the power of good storytelling — something The Turning lacks.
I did read some reviews before I went to go see the movie
The Turning was released in the US on January 24, 2020. I didn’t actually go see it until February 8. In the meantime, I took the opportunity to read some reviews of the movie to see whether it was really worth spending the time and money to go see it at the movie theaters.
ALL the reviews I read said that, overall, the film was good — atmospheric and intense at the right moments for a horror film, complete with creepy kids (is there anything scarier than a creepy kid?) — but that the ending was very disappointing.
I wasn’t wise enough to heed that warning; don’t be like me.
I’ve read movie reviews before that were critical, and I didn’t agree with them at all. I thought that might be the case with this movie — even though EVERY review said the same thing. My love for James and the story was so strong, I couldn’t pass up the chance to go see it for myself. I quickly discovered that all those reviews were right on the money.
A movie with three (or was it just two?) endings
I’m not going to rehash all the plot details. Other people have done that. And, for the most part, aside from setting the action during the 1990s, the absence of the indifferent uncle, and a few weird things here and there, the movie stayed pretty true to the original Henry James novella. At least, this was the case for the first 7/8 of the movie.
Unlike in James’s original version, we were treated to not one, but two (although when I first saw it, it seemed like three) different endings in this cinematic version. As I said, I had been forewarned about the ending of this movie. At least one reviewer mentioned a collective groan that went out across the theater.
I can safely say, from my experience, that the collective theater groan is a universal thing, and it mostly takes the form of, “Huh, what?”
The ending fork in the road starts in the kitchen. Kate has just received a package from her mother (who is in some sort of mental institution). I can’t help but wonder if this is the same package she received at the beginning of the movie, when she was telling her roommate she was going to be moving out to go to Bly. She refused to open the package she received then.
Or maybe this was a completely different package sent directly from her mother, not forwarded by the former roommate. At any rate, I find it interesting that Kate refused to have anything to do with her mother’s package before, but now she wastes no time in looking at what’s inside. The package has already been opened by someone else — perhaps Mrs. Grose, who makes a comment about the possibility that Kate’s mother’s insanity could have been passed down to her.
After Mrs. Grose makes her rude comment, Flora and Miles come in and ask Kate to play a game of flashlight tag with them. And that’s when all the ghosts come out, of course, because all the lights go off. At this point (and even before), it is revealed that Quint had an unhealthy obsession with Miss Jessel. She tried to escape, and he killed her (this goes along with what we saw at the beginning of the movie). Then we find out that Mrs. Grose killed Quint, but Quint’s ghost throws Mrs. Grose over the stairwell. Kate then takes Miles and Flora running out of the house, to the car, and out of the gate that Miss Jessel never made it through.
The camera follows Kate’s car down the road for a while, and then it suddenly throws us back to Kate in the kitchen with Mrs. Grose, still staring at her mother’s paintings — one of which looks like a car in the dark night, with its headlights on. Mrs. Grose makes the same sort of comment about the inevitability of Kate being just as crazy as her mother. But Kate’s interactions with the children are very different in this version. Instead of being their savior, she is the object of their derision, mistrust, and scorn. She ends up hysterical, curled up on the floor in a ball.
And this brings us to what I originally thought was the third ending…now, I think it was just a continuation of the second. After Kate huddles on the floor, the camera cuts to yet another scene. This time, Kate is waking up in a bed in the dry swimming pool at the mental institution where her mother spends most of her time painting. Kate walks over to her mother. And, when her mother turns toward her, Kate screams.
Roll credits, with Kate’s hand trailing over a wall covered with wallpaper decorated with birds and flowers — some of which are right side up, and some of which are upside down (homage to “The Yellow Wallpaper”??). And there’s also a creepy, jerky woman under water for most of the second half of the credits.
Strange, to say the least.
SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to try to interpret the endings here…
When the movie was over, my husband turned to me and said, “I don’t get it.”
I agreed. But when I went home and started researching what other people were saying about the ending of this movie, I realized that I caught on to more than I originally thought. I actually did get it, sort of — as much as is humanly possible, at least.
See, the first ending is what Kate thinks is happening — what she WANTS to happen. Indeed, it’s what we all want to happen. The kids and the nanny escape from the scary ghosts. Happy (or at least not totally depressing) ending…happy audience.
But that’s not what happens at all. The picture of the car with the headlights is the intersection of the first and the second endings. It’s the catalyst that made Kate imagine her happy ending. The second ending is what really happened. The kids and Mrs. Grose all understand that Kate is now insane and, as we realize after the camera gives us a close-up shot of Kate’s eye, leading us to that final scene with her mother in the pool, Kate finally also understands that she has lost her grip on reality.
Her greatest fear has come true — she is just like her mother.
The more I think about it, the more I think Kate’s refusal to look at her mother’s paintings early on in the film was her attempt at trying to stave off the madness she felt creeping up on her. By the end of the movie, she’s done fighting it.
The Turning may be a description of the creation of the movie
Various online sources describe the making of The Turning as tumultuous, at best. First, there was a title change — from The Haunting, maybe showing what the original intent of the movie was (there are hints of this — like the creepy mannequin head turning by itself — throughout the movie, which makes its interpretation that much more difficult). Then, there were cast changes, and changes to the screenplay — including a total overhaul of the ending.
This, I think, explains much of the disconnection and disjointedness that is experienced upon viewing the theatrical ending. It all feels too quick — too forced, especially considering the pacing of the first 7/8 of the movie.
My husband commented that it feels like a “director’s cut” is in order, and I tend to agree with him.
Oh, and either the director or the cameraman has an obvious breast obsession. My husband commented on that too…and he probably noticed it a little more than I did.
My final piece of advice
Go see this movie, if you want. It’s well acted, and it has some interesting (although not exceptionally scary) moments.
Better yet, wait till it hits Netflix or Amazon. You won’t spend as much money. Just be prepared to see breasts. And walk out or turn it off after about an hour and a half.
Save yourself the frustration of trying to figure out that ending.
Still, I have to say the movie does one thing really well. It stays in your head and won’t go away. If the filmmakers were shooting for that, they were definitely successful.
What to watch instead
The best adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, bar none, is 1961’s The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr. That movie follows both the letter and the spirit of the original story. It is not currently available on Amazon digital video (believe me, I looked as soon as I got home from watching that train wreck of a movie at the theater).
But you can actually watch it on YouTube (yay!)
There’s another version starring Lynn Redgrave and Megs Jenkins (who reprises the role of Mrs. Grose, which she played in the 1961 film) that’s not bad, but it’s not as good as The Innocents. You can watch that one on Amazon Prime Video,¹ if you’re a subscriber.
On an interesting side note, it appears that the entire Redgrave family may be as obsessed with this story as I am. Michael Redgrave played the distant uncle in The Innocents, his daughter Lynn played the governess in the 1974 made-for-TV version, and her niece (Michael’s granddaughter) Joely Richardson played Kate’s mother in The Turning.
There’s another movie version of The Turn of the Screw that doesn’t feature any of the Redgraves available with Amazon Prime. This one presents an interesting take on the tale.² It’s not terrible … and it’s definitely much better than The Turning, as are the previously mentioned movies.
You have other, better options. Why not take advantage of one of them?
¹,² These are affiliate links. Amazon pays me a small commission if you buy something from their site using my links.