Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Presence of Mind (1999)

I wrote about Presence of Mind about this time last year shortly after watching The Turning, which is what got me interested in The Turn of the Screw again. At the time, I hadn't yet reread the novella, but based on my memory of it, I judged Presence of Mind to be a faithful adaptation except for some changes in location and characters' names. Now that I'm better able to compare it with the novella and some other versions, I realize that while it's certainly closer to the book than The Turning is, it still takes some big liberties.

I do still really like it though. Sadie Frost's version of the governess is young and naive like in the novella, but Presence of Mind comes at her from a slightly different angle from Henry James or even Ben Bolt's adaptation also from 1999. In Bolt's version, Jodhi May beautifully pulls out the intensity and paranoia of the governess. Presence's director Antoni Aloy seems more interested in the character's sexual awakening.

The movie includes some prologue scenes that aren't in the book, showing the death of the governess' father and suggesting that he was an oppressive figure in her life, even after his death. When she interviews with Miles and Flora's uncle (Harvey Keitel), he's charming, but unapologetic about his inability to look after his niece and nephew. He leads a lazy, luxurious life and can't be bothered to manage children, but what's important is his effect on the governess. His habits are so different from the austere, repressed existence she's used to and she can't help but be curious and attracted to him. When she visits his secret rooms at the estate, she learns that he's maybe even more wanton than she realized. But it doesn't stifle her interest in him.

He's exactly the sort of fellow who would tolerate a man like Peter Quint running the estate. And while the Mrs Grose character in this version (played by Lauren Bacall and renamed Mado Remei) is strict in her own way, she's also supportive of the Master. The governess is going to have to explore and awaken without support from anyone else.

The setting for the story is relocated from the English countryside to a sumptuous, Mediterranean island off the coast of Spain. Everything about the story is designed to arouse the governess, including - unfortunately - the children. It's clear in the book that Miles and Flora have been somehow abused by Quint and Miss Jessel, the previous governess, but the extent and exact nature of that abuse is vague. At the very least, the kids have seen and heard things that they shouldn't have seen or heard. It's affected them and Miles in particular has begun repeating some words - and possibly actions - that have gotten him expelled from school and that make his new governess very uncomfortable. 

Miles is experienced beyond his age and eager to experiment and experience even more. That's all in the book, but the extent of his "maturity" and experimentation is open for interpretation. Dan Curtis' Miles is pretty far gone and irredeemable, for instance. Ben Bolt's Miles struggles a lot more, as does Aloy's. Miles is a good, sweet kid, but in Aloy's version especially he can't unsee or unthink what he's experienced and that leads him to want to experiment with the governess. And because of her own interest in emerging from past repression, she's not equipped to resist Miles' invitation. She wants to though and that's the central conflict of this version. (Flora isn't a temptation to the governess in the same way that Miles is, but she's still affected by her environment and the film makes it clear that she and Miles are experimenting with each other.)

Meanwhile, the ghosts are very real in this one. It's Quint's specter who kills Miles at the end, not the governess' accidental smothering of him. Maybe that's because Miles has been more in control through the rest of the story. The governess has made an attempt to keep herself and Miles (and Flora, to a lesser extent) under control, but she's mostly failed. The more versions I watch though, the less interested I am in whether or not the ghosts are real. They can or can't be; it doesn't affect the real drama of the story either way. My favorite versions - this one and Bolt's - are about the governess' inexperience and complete lack of equipment for dealing with even the non-supernatural horrors of the household. 

I still love the ambiguity and certainly the filmmaking of The Innocents (with its older governess), but I love even more the boldness of Bolt and Aloy to deal frankly with the disturbing implications of James' story. From a sheer craft perspective, The Innocents has Presence of Mind beat. But as a piece of art that's trying to communicate something very specific (though disturbing), Presence of Mind is excellent.

Four out of five inappropriate instructors.

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