“THROUGH THE SHADOW”— A Reworking of the “The Turn of the Screw”


A Reworking of the “The Turn of the Screw”

Amos Lassen

Elisa (Mel Maia), in a luxurious garden, is seen singing a children’s song based on a fable about murder and ghostly voices.. There is no stepmother here, but she’s getting a new governess: Laura (Virginia Cavendish), who is dressed all in black because she’s mourning her recently deceased mother. This gives her an aspect of liminality, of closeness to dead things that is at odds with the new life she is beginning. Having been given the keys to the estate, she has been told by its owner that she will be its mistress for the foreseeable future. She is to look after Elisa and, as it turns out, her brother Antonio (Xande Valois), who will soon return from his boarding school under mysterious circumstances. We also meet housekeeper Dona Geraldina (Ana Lúcia Torre), who is friendly but secretive, keenly aware of the house’s past.

Laura’s first clue that something might be amiss is whether there is a strange man climbing on the roof. A door is unexpectedly closed to her. She bonds with Elisa, but the child says she misses her old governess.

Director Walter Lima Jr’s brings us a beautifully photographed film that is big on atmosphere but short on structural detail very much in the spirit of Henry James’ original work. The story takes on new resonances in the process of Brazil’s complex history of disappearances and snatched children. Laura is afraid for the children, convinced that someone or something is threatening their safety. Lima Jr, however, is \explicit about the possibility that it might be her.

The sense of sexual threat in the original story takes a different and in many way more disturbing direction here, facilitated by the languid atmosphere of the house and its surroundings. Class divisions are important. Antonio spies on servants and this hints at the taboos that have shaped the lives of those on the estate. It’s a place where madness doesn’t seem like something out of the ordinary, and where Laura’s increasing certainly about the things she sees is regarded with cynicism yet with kindness. Nobody suggests that she isn’t fit to look after the children in this state. It’s almost as if they expected it.

Laura feels that she is caught up in something beyond her control and we see this in Cavendish who is obliged to segue between extremes of emotion yet maintains a sense of coherence, taking viewers along a path that many will not recognize until the end. The story comes apart a bit in the second half where some elements might have been had they been pared down, but in the end this is an effective chiller. 

This filmshifts the setting from an English country estate to a Brazilian coffee plantation – and slightly opens out the story, with a few scenes not from the viewpoint of governess Laura (Virginia Cavendish) that break the spell somewhat.

It keeps trying to juice up James: the uncle (Domingos Montagner) who hires Laura is introduced boxing dirty with a sparring partner, impressing the repressed ex-convent teacher with his sweaty uniform; on the train to the estate, Laura is tag-teamed by a pair of rural mashers who don’t get anywhere with her; a couple of living, sensual servants  are as sexually active in public as the ghosts were supposed to be and so on.  Antonio and Elisa are insufficiently. The director holds back from making much of the sexual tension between the governess, the ghost and the boy. 

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