Saturday, April 28, 2012

Psychosexual Uber Gothic: Turn of the Screw (BBC 2009)

Not sure about that title? Neither am I, but I’ll give it a shot.

In 1999, I went to my first opera, Benjamin Britten’s 1954 version of The Turn of the Screw. Even though the opera was sung in English, I couldn’t understand a word of it. I know the story of The Turn of the Screw like the back of my hand, but as I quickly came to understand, with opera it’s not so much the words, but everything else… the sets, the costume, and the direction.

I remember very little of the opera except that the stage production was jaw dropping. Ghosts appeared from inside the walls of the grand mansion and descended to the stage on a lift, Quint writhed on top of the piano while the Governess sang her aria… and the whole thing was infused with a hyper-sexuality that left no room for misinterpretation. There was nothing subtle about the opera.

There’s nothing subtle about the BBC’s 2009 reinterpretation of the perennial classic, either. This version is beautifully photographed at Somerset’s Brympton d’evercy, the production drips with Gothic imagery at every turn, and the performances by the cast are all first rate (Sue Johnston as Mrs. Gross was particularly outstanding). All of this, for me anyway, saves what is an otherwise curious mess. I didn’t mind the story being reset in the 1920s. I didn’t mind the script overstating the obvious, that Ann was sexually frustrated and that Peter Quint boffed every woman at Bly. I doubt even Mrs. Gross got off Scott-free.

It starts to get a little bizarre (okay, really bizarre) when there is a quick-cut flashback showing Miles, cocktail glass and cigar in hand, feet propped up, watching Quint and Miss Jessel go at it hot and heavy. There were a number of scenes like this, stripping the story of all its subtlety and driving home the psycho-sexual elements.

The film’s ultimate failing is in later scenes when the children become “possessed” by the spirits of the former governess and the valet. The producers chose to take a cue from The Exorcist and have demonic voices come spewing out of Miles’ and Flora’s mouths. It was a bit much. No, it was way too much. First I laughed, and then I groaned. Such a cheap gimmick threw the entire affair into the rubbish bin.

So it’s probably with good reason that the film has not yet made it to American audiences. If you know where to look, like I do, you can acquire a copy by nefarious means. You can even watch it in multiple parts on YouTube.

Or you can be smart, and leave well enough alone. 

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