The Brazilians are rushing to add their spin on Henry James' magnum opus, and theirs remains a heavily flawed but watchable, quite eclectic as well on occasion, entry into the series. One of the biggest merits this picture has is that it follows the plot from the book very faithfully. Another asset that immediately comes to mind is the child actors: a very strong appearance, arguably the best performance from youngsters in the trend, their presence compensating for the pitfalls witnessed along the way.
But first things first: it's nowhere shown in what time period the action takes place; based on the buildings' style, cars, trains, and the clothes the characters wear, the semi-educated guess is the 1920's... or thereabouts. The characters all have Portuguese names, ones I'm not going to bother with; will stick with the routine ones in order to keep the setting familiar. The uncle is a boxing lover, knocking out an opponent in a not very friendly, not very fair either, fight at the beginning. The protagonist is a very prudently-looking woman, dressed in black from top to bottom, reportedly arriving from a convent... by no means the most erotic emergence in the world, but one that intrigues the lascivious uncle, to the point that he starts flirting with her. Provided that the woman shows next to no emotion during the very improvised interview, it's downright absurd to believe that she has developed some kind of liking for this indecorous sweaty man... as it becomes evident later. This initial awkward inauguration is transformed into pure bizarreness later when the woman is besieged by two men on the train, which is completely empty by the way save for those three. The men do nothing, literally, just look at her suggestively; some of the smoke from the cigarette of one of them ends up on her lapel, which evokes a very indifferent, counter-emotional "Be Careful" from her.
More weird stuff later while she walks around the railway station terminal, waiting for someone to pick her up... suddenly, a black figure appears out of nowhere, and snatches her bags that are left on the ground. The first, and most logical, impression is that this is a thief... it turns out that this is the carriage driver who is supposed to meet her and take her to "the farm", as the uncle describes the premise... no greetings, no introductions... the way of the servants/slaves in Brazil, as the man is exactly that. During the carriage journey, he seems fixed upon something that is ahead of him, his unwavering but blank stare recalling the one of the zombies from Jacques Tourneur's seminal "I Walked with a Zombie", intentionally or not... well, here we have "I Rode with a Zombie", but the effect is quite comparable. Then comes the conversation between the two, which is one of the most eccentric verbal exchanges these ears have ever come across... the woman asks questions, but the man answers neither of them; he doesn't stop talking but what he says is never related to what the woman wants to know... it's like those two inhabit different universes which have no intercepting point whatsoever.
After this episode one will have no choice but to brace her/himself for an outlandish eccentric interpretation, one that would have come out of the hands of Luis Bunuel, or David Lynch... alas, the moment the carriage arrives at the farm, the bizarreness is toned down considerably, with a large group of servants/slaves present, with a fairly elderly Mrs. Grosse (presumably late-70's/early-80's), and with a stubbornly unfriendly Flora who is way more attached to Mrs. Grosse than anyone else... Miles is away at that time. Still, our protagonist melts the ice bit by bit, and manages to establish the requisite rapport between her and the girl. This is not a very easy task, though, with Mrs. Grosse not missing the slightest opportunity to exercise her authority over the girl, not to mention that she breaks a religious statuette belonging to the governess while rummaging through her things. In a very unexpected twist, it's Flora who takes the blame for that when the topic has been raised... a further testimony that Mrs' Grosse's place in her heart is firmly secure.
But it's not only the girl that is a very strong character. Enters Miles, and the viewer is instantly smitten by his valour when he tries to help a suffocating man on the train. His disregard to authority is also early displayed when he dismisses his guardian not very apologetically at the station. He thinks like an adult, and has profound meaningful conversations with the governess, Mrs. Grosse, everyone... during one of those with our heroine he, naturally, gives her a passionate kiss on the lips, this encounter evoking a bout of puking from her in the toilet right after... yep, she can't stand such intimacy, especially with a child; although this child has not so healthy appetites as we see him intently watching two servants having sex a few cadres down the line. Later on he is seen ogling the governess as well while she has a bath... which, strangely enough, she takes with her nightgown on...
yep, this little boy is no angel, but let's have a look at the main ingredients of the story, the ghosts that is. And this is where this film loses quite a few points... Peter Quint's first appearance comes so early and is so unexpected that you will miss it if you blink. He materializes next to the fountain at the front of the house, simply looking like one of the servants, wearing a cowboy hat which he courteously taps at the governess when she looks at him from the window. A valiant cavalier no more no less, coming as a mix of Zorro and the Man with No Name from the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns... one expects at any moment the guy to draw his sword, or his gun, and to start pricking, respectively shooting, left and right in the defence of any damsel that happens to be in sight...
in fact, no one knows if this is him until later when he shows up fixing the roof, looking as innocuous as ever, just a worker doing his job. However, Flora clearly notices and acknowledges him which is a very awkward moment as later on there are no other such signs that the children are aware of the ghosts, save for the ambiguous ending of course. On top of that, a minute later the governess enters the house running after Flora, asking about the man fixing the roof... we don't know if she has seen him, we only saw Flora doing that... the question remains ungrounded at best, adding further to the awkwardness.
Quint's presence manages to squeeze a few jumps eventually, during his window materialization, but by that time the film has lost its significance as a horror outing, including with the manifestations of the other ghost, Jessel, whose obligatory appearance at the lake is plain laughable, her looking like a zombie, making slow clumsy steps forward with her hands stretched towards our protagonist. Quint and Jessel end up having sex eventually, on the kitchen table of all places, during a vision produced by the governess' fervent imagination. And this is where the actual turn of the screw takes place: our covertly sexually repressed heroine, from a most composed, calm, plain dispassionate as well entity transforms, literally overnight, into a raving, on-the-verge-of-dementia, semi-lunatic. She starts behaving erratically and vehemently, scaring away the servants, the children... including the respectfully equanimous Mrs. Grosse. Still, in-between her bouts of mounting hysteria she manages to come to a most stunning revelation: Quint and Jessel are absolutely intent on possessing, corrupting, and ultimately taking the children away... thumbs up for most striking clairvoyant skills ever displayed in the series... since heretofore there's next to no evidence that such a scheme is possible, neither in this nor the afterlife.
At least these last scenes get the best out of the main actress as to present such a metamorphosis on the big screen one really has to try. It lacks credit, though, since again it has very little justification if any at all, but the adequate, albeit expected and rudimentary, finale exonerates it to an extent. A spoiler, depending on the point-of-view of course, could be the moment when it becomes clear that Mile, too, can see Quint... apparently the miscreant is more visible than his girlfriend... excluding the apparitions, the acting is near-impeccable, with the child actors again coming on top... and the black zombie-like man from the beginning, this weird fellow who still has a few more weird lines later, also saving our protagonist from falling into the lake when she had her eyes tied by the children during a hide-and-seek game. Bizarrely enough, mere seconds later he remains deaf to her pleads for him to come back and see Jessel when she materializes in the middle of the lake... provided that the man is just a few metres away from her...
a strange charming mess overall, with moments that deserve a few more subsequent glimpses, especially this surreal, eccentric beginning... it's a pity the film makers couldn't sustain this tendency throughout, we could have been talking a most surreal turn of the screw these past few years... now this outing remains just above average, with a couple of glaring flaws, strong acting, a decent if predictable epitaph, a few rousing erotic scenes as well... a fluctuating, uneven viewing experience that isn't very high on the horror.