In a Dark Place (2006) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
In a Dark Place is the latest of what seems like dozens of screen interpretations of The Turn of the Screw, a classic 19th century novel by the noted intellectual Henry James.
The official blurb begins: "She thought she was their Guardian Angel, but was she really their Nanny from Hell?"
Exactly as ol' Hank himself might have worded it!
Dark Places brings the James story into modern times. Leelee Sobieski has been dismissed from a teaching job and takes a job as a governess to two troubled youngsters in a remote English estate. The basic condition of her employment is that she not bother the children's guardian with anything at all. The children's parents have died tragically, and the globe-trotting uncle has no time for the children and wishes to remain aloof. She is to take complete charge of their lives, in return for which she will receive a salary far beyond her wildest dreams. Failing to heed the adage that anything too good to be true probably isn't, she soon enters a bizarre situation. The estate's housekeeper is icy, the little girl is strange, and the little boy has just been expelled from his third school. The four of them are essentially marooned together in the isolated country castle, and supernatural events start to occur. The castle, and perhaps the children themselves, seem to be haunted by two ghosts, the previous governess and her lover, a certain evil Mr Quint.
The Turn of the Screw presents many interpretative challenges for a screenwriter.
In terms of a screen adaptation, the screenwriter has only two choices. He can (1) choose to take a point of view - i.e. "the governess is mad" or "the ghosts are real," and tell the story based on his own interpretation; or he can (2) follow James's point of view and take no position at all, allowing the uncertainty to add an additional element of mystery. This screenplay chose neither tactic. It seemed to vacillate in its interpretation from scene to scene. The framing device has been eliminated, and there is no narrator, so the story must be interpreted on its own merits as if the events really happen. Therefore, the mystery hinges on whether the ghosts are real, or imagined by the governess. After having watched the film, not only am I unable to answer that question, but I can cite about a dozen points to support either interpretation, and key information is missing. If we knew, for example, that the boy has been expelled from school for seeming to possess an adult's level of knowledge and vocabulary which are considered a pernicious influence on the other children, then we might reasonably conclude that there is objective evidence to support an interpretation that the lad has been possessed by Quint. But we never see or hear the reason for his mysterious multiple expulsions, although they are mentioned frequently. Similarly, I just don't know what position the author is taking on whether the children saw the ghosts or not? At the end of the film, the children's drawings seem to indicate that the governess is the person they fear, but earlier drawings indicated that they probably had seen the ghosts. Again, the evidence of the earlier drawings would indicate that the governess was not mad, but later events seem to contradict that, especially when she lies to the housekeeper about whether the children have seen the ghosts.
The housekeeper, Mrs Grose, seems to be completely grounded in reality, and she is completely convinced that there are no ghosts. She can't see them even when the governess points to them, and she says that the mysterious handprints on the window are hers, thus dispelling any possibility that they are ghastly traces. The cinematic use of this character seems to lead to one interpretation - that the governess is mad, and that the children sometimes behave strangely simply because of the tragedies which have affected them directly. But an earlier scene is shot from Mr Quint's point of view. If he is not real, then why does the director do that?
I don't know. The screenplay has me baffled, and the ending especially so. The governess chases the boy through the snow at night. She insists that she's just protecting him from the evil ghosts, but he fears her for some unexplained reason. Rather than let her give him a hug, he wades out into a marsh and drowns - not quite intentionally, but without struggling.
An unsatisfying film with an extremely unsatisfying ending.
But wait, there's more. Not content with the raw material provided by Henry James, the screenplay is further complicated by a lesbian relationship between the governess and the housekeeper (Tara Fitzgerald), because we all know how much Mr James loved hot girl-on-girl action. I'm only getting started on the new sexual elements of the story. There is also a sexy and crazed masturbation scene, not from the possibly mad governess, but from the grounded and businesslike housekeeper, who plays a violin wearing only a robe, then begins to whirl like dervish, falls dizzily to he bed, and begins feverishly touching herself to a pulsing drum-beat... all of which has nothing to do with the rest of the film, but does provide some lurid nudity. (Hey, it worked for me. Ms Fitzgerald is very convincing.) Wait, there's more. There's also the suggestion that the governess engaged in a sexual act with the little boy, although this is kept entirely implicit. Thank God. (Believe it or not, this is actually not gratuitous. It supports an interpretation that the boy is possessed by Mr Quint.)
What the hell?
Even setting aside the strange psycho-sexual additions to the mix, you have to wonder "what is the deal?" Are the ghosts there or not? Do the children see them or not? Why was the boy expelled three times? Why does the boy make his pseudo-suicidal plunge into the frozen marsh? Is the governess completely mad, or has she become agitated by the fact that she is confronting supernatural forces? The problem is not that the screenplay takes no position, which would have been alright, but that it constantly contradicts itself. I think it meant to convey that the governess was mad, but there are other elements which don't jell with that interpretation.
The screenplay is not the only problem. Leelee delivers a very poor performance as the governess, the children are not much better, and the entire film seems to have been shot by a video camera to create a claustrophobic TV look, even though it is in a widescreen aspect ratio. I would suggest that you avoid this film and rent a copy of 1961's The Innocents, which featured six-time Oscar nominee Deborah Kerr as the governess, and which is rated 8.0 at IMDb.
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