Following last year’s NZ Opera production, another local “take” on Henry James’ famous ghost story “The Turn of the Screw”

THE TURN OF THE SCREW – A film (2020) by Alex Galvin  after the novella by Henry James (1898)

Cast: Greer Phillips (Julia/Governess) / Ralph Johnson (Richard) / Ben Fransham (Uncle/Peter Quint) / Jane Waddell (Mrs Grose) / Ella Olssen (Flora) / Alex Usher (Miles) / Sarah Munn (Miss Jessel)

Writer – Alex Galvin
Producers – Alex Galvin, Emma Beale, Nicola Peeperkoorn, Edward Sampson
Production Designer – Debbie Fish
Costume Designer – Sally Gray
Music – Ewan Clark
Musicians – NZSM Orchestra
Sound – Matthew Lambourne, Callum Scott, John McKay
Cinematographer – Mark Papallii
Editors – Elizabeth Denekamp, Edward Sampson, John McKay
Executive Producers – James Partridge, John McKay

Embassy Theatre, Wellington

Thursday, 6th August, 2010 (NZ Premiere)

A recent feather in the cap of New Zealand film-making has been the inclusion of “The Turn of the Screw”, an adaptation of Henry James’s classic ghost story by Wellington director Alex Galvin, in the recent Shanghai film Festival. Within a few days of the Shanghai showing the film had its New Zealand premiere at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, an event that was sold out. Its audience witnessed an intriguing “take” on James’ novella, one which effectively paralleled the way the author “framed” his original story by having a guest at a country house party produce a written account of a new governess’s experience with two children she claimed were “haunted” by two dead servants wanting to “possess” them. Here, the story was enacted as a dress rehearsal for a stage production at the Wellington Opera House,  where a replacement actress for the part of the governess (Greer Phillips) arrives by taxi just before the rehearsal is about to begin, and is quickly and somewhat bewilderingly thrust into her stage character by Richard, her director (Ralph Johnson). The latter’s slightly creepy fulsomeness supported James’s own observation that there should be “a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect” in the story from the beginning, and even if none too subtly as the action proceeded, this state of things was certainly engendered here.

What was also straightaway evoked as the story itself began, by dint of superbly-wrought lighting and properly-suggestive music (a tangibly atmospheric, if perhaps sometimes over-wrought, score by composer Ewan Clark) was a sense of disorientation on the part of both Julia, the actress, and her character the governess, most convincingly “inhabited” by Greer Phillips at this and every other point. This was aided by a prevailing opaque luminosity of visual effect working hand-in-glove with a soundscape that engendered and harboured all-pervading unease – unlike with the written word, which the reader can modulate at his or her pleasure in terms of a time-frame, a spoken narration or drama grips the listener or observer in a more-or-less continual flow – so James’s story was here essentially telescoped into what seems like a much shorter period, having the effect of taking over in real time a “house of horrors” from which there could be no relief. The reader might register with the story’s telling the gradual disappearance of summer into autumn, and the succession of days passing “without another encounter” (with the ghosts), but we in the theatre seemed as prey to omnipresent interaction with these spectral forces, or the threat of it, as seemed the story’s ill-fated governess to be.

The effect of this concentration of untoward incident I thought akin to a ride on one of those “ghost trains” of my youth set up in the amusement parts of fairs, with bangs, screeches and crashes at regular intervals, each played for its maximum effect!  At first the sheer visceral impact of each “scare” I found overwhelmingly sonorous and atmospheric but soon felt the too-frequent scares becoming counter-productive with every irruption (one has only to recall F.W.Murnau’s silent film “Nosferatu” to remind oneself how the visual alone can make as terrifying an impression). I thought the “bird” incident, for example, the killing of a stray sparrow by the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, gratuitous in effect, accompanied by a noise out of all proportion to the action. Still, there were places during which  the camerawork allowed images to create their full effect largely unaided, generating enormous tension and anxiety – the governess’s discovery of and approach towards the veil worn by Miss Jessel, for example, let us for a few moments ourselves do some of the work towards creating tensions in our own minds, culminating just as fraughtfully with the shock of our unexpectedly encountering the housekeeper.

Something the film certainly conveys is the ever-burgeoning obsessiveness of the governess regarding the presence of the ghosts and their intent regarding the children, a point which has taxed analyses of the original James story since its appearance – there have been various “stances” taken by critics, ranging from those who regard the story as an out-and-out supernatural tale, to the argument that the governess herself is an “unreliable” narrator, bringing her own imaginative, deluded and, ultimately fatal obsessions to bear on the situation. Complicating the ambiguities of James’s own colouring of the character’s narrative is the stress and uncertainty the film’s setting and action puts her as an actress under from the outset, so that we are having to take into account her having to “feel her way” through the stage business’s unknown territories irrespective of her knowledge of the script – her “off the cuff” expletives in response to various happenings are mere tips of the iceberg which compound her uncertainties (and her reactions) in this role, and effectively “run together” the strains of motivation for her actions.

Generally I thought the actors’ characterisations had a basic and attractive naturalness and ease, cleverly contrived to create tension whenever this was disturbed. Alongside, and a perfect foil for, the governess of Greer Phillips was the non-imposing figure of the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, played by Jane Waddell with disarming literalness – in James’s narrative she is described by the governess as “a magnificent monument to the blessings of a want of imagination” (itself an intentionally spontaneous self-revealing remark), and Waddell’s unequivocal, if occasionally uncertain response to the governess’s quickness of supposition effectively throws the latter’s obvious susceptibility to such things into bold relief.

The children, Ella Olssen as Flora, and Alex Usher as Miles, both looked and lived their respective roles most assuredly, playing their part in heightening the ambivalence of our feelings towards their states of awareness, the camera-work a particularly candid exploration of skilfully-wrought expressive nuance on the young actors’ part delineating their interactions with the governess. With Miles, the elder of the two,  around whom an aura of misconduct had already been created by his supposed expulsion from school, the sexual tensions which are contrived via the governess’s superheated protectiveness of the boy from the house’s malignant presences, are inversely reflected by her earlier alienation from the girl, Flora, in dramatically confronting her with a kind of  supposed “guilt of awareness” of those same presences. Each of the encounters exploits the full impact of one’s immersion in appropriately dramatic visual and sonic happenings – climaxes in a veritable symphony of drama, and appropriately full-blooded at those particular moments.

Regarding the “ghosts”, both brought to their respective presences a time-honoured frisson of fearful thrill through their unerring immersion in the drama’s capacities for shock and surprise, however much I thought some of the gestures might have been wrought or framed in a less obvious kind of way. An interesting touch was having Ben Fransham play the roles of both the Uncle (in the story’s Prologue) and the ghostly manservant, Peter Quint, underlining the elsewhere-expressed theory of Quint being a kind of “alter ego” of the Uncle (whom the governess gives every indication of being infatuated with), a juxtaposition which would heighten her “reverse abhorrence” of the idea of Quint having anything to do with Miles. The other ghost, Miss Jessel, an even more enigmatic presence (James deliberately sparing with his detailings concerning her, with Mrs Grose being the “agent” of information for the governess in each of the ghost’s cases, rendering the unfortunate pair in terms mixing memory and heresay. Sarah Munn as Jessel fully matches and fills out whatever projection of fear and unease we might bring to an encounter with her character in such a context.

How these “onion layers” of supposed actuality, conjecture and fantasy play themselves out is a process which I thought here made by and large a riveting experience in the cinema/theatre. And the drama’s closing post-rehearsal scene presents a final enigma, one that bonds with the film’s opening circumstance of the young replacement actress, Julia, tossed into a kind of maelstrom of her character’s overall fantasy and (possibly) self-delusion. Interestingly, the circumstance is presented plainly and simply, its stark actuality all that is needed to suitably disturb. Writer, producer and director Alex Galvin has here formulated an absorbing “take” on a much-examined story, at once “bringing it home” to us in a localised and contemporary way via the setting, and expanding our own sensibilities and visions in the context of a vibrant occasion of world-wide currency.