The Nightcomers (1971) | Michael Winner’s The Turn of the Screw prequel – a brave, bold, underrated gem or a foolish flop?
Two Children. Two Adults. One Unspeakable Crime
Left in the care of their governess Miss Jessel (Stephanie Beacham) and housekeeper Mrs Grose (Thora Hird) at their absent uncle’s grand Tudor manor, Bly House, young orphans Flora (Verna Harvey) and Miles (Christopher Ellis) become enthralled by the estate’s Irish retainer Peter Quint (Marlon Brando), whose enigmatic presence exerts a corrupting hold of them as he enters into a sadomasochistic affair with their governess…
‘To really love someone, you must want to kill’
1971’s The Nightcomers, based on an original screenplay by dramatist Michael Hastings, sketches a prequel to Henry James’ 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. Directed by a pre-Death Wish Michael Winner, and shot on location at Sawston Hall in Cambridgeshire, it features a Bafta-nominated performance from Marlon Brando, and marks Stephanie Beacham’s first leading role in a feature.
Past his prime, but not yet podgy, Brando was on the cusp of his later acting career when he made Winner’s sub-Lawrentian sado-masochistic drama. Despite the mumbling Irish lilt and telltale bald patch, he makes for a compelling over-the-hill Heathcliffe, but one who is still agile and virile enough to cast a roguish spell. Winner managed to secure Brando because: ‘Despite being a legend in the industry nobody cared about him.’ But Winner regarded Brando’s performance as ‘breathtaking’.
Winner must have been either very brave or very foolish to go anywhere near Henry James’ iconic ghost story (which had been given a sublime screen adaptation in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents in 1961), but The Nightcomers makes for a fascinating speculation on how Miss Jessel and Peter Quint died and what that ‘hinted at’ evil was in James’s tale. With the core theme being: ‘To really love someone, you must want to kill’, Winner and Hastings conjured up a scenario in which it is the children who become instrumental in the couple’s demise.
Now, I don’t know whether its the script or the performances, but Brando’s Quint seems more like a free spirit than a purely evil corrupting influence, while Beacham’s Jessel comes off like a wannabe suffragette struggling against repression rather than a sexually depraved harlot. What is disturbing is the idea that the children are so impressionable that they become sociopaths just by watching Jessel and Quint having rough sex. Considering this entails little more than some rope bondage and the odd whipping, one wonders how those 12-year-olds in France will be affected after witnessing the ‘Red Room of Pain’ in the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey? Winner’s film does, however, open up a debate on the question of sexuality and innocence, which is only skirted around here.
While both Brando and Beacham are compelling in their roles, and Thora Hird smashing as the no-nonsense housekeeper, Verna Harvey and Christopher Ellis bring little depth to Miles and Flora, the fault being in their stage school reading of the script (they’re certainly no match for Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin in The Innocents). For me, however, what really stands out here is Robert Paynter’s crisp cinematography, which gorgeously captures the winter light over the Cambridgeshire countryside, and the stunning Sawston Hall Tudor mansion (see below).
London dramatist Michael Hastings (1938-2011) is best known for his controversial play, Tom and Viv, about the first marriage of TS Eliot, but was also the youngest of the ‘angry young men’ Royal Court playwrights whose gritty dramas in the 1950s forged a renaissance in British theatre. When writing The Nightcomers, Hastings’ said he did not set out to impersonate Henry James’ unique quality, but as there was something ‘hidden’ and ‘remained’ at Bly house, he felt there was a need for a further account of the characters of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. In the foreward to his novelisation of the fim, Hastings wrote: ‘No matter how often he paid lip service to the mystery of those strange ghosts and the intangible hold upon the children their deaths created – that “shadow of a shadow” and “thinness” as James called it – any reading of Turn left a sense of further mystery. Who were they and what did they do?’ The Nightcomers is Hastings’ speculation.
DID YOU KNOW?
The 500-year-old Grade I-listed Sawston Hall in Cambridgeshire is said to be haunted by the ghost of Queen Mary, who has been seen floating through the house and gardens (much like Miss Jessel’s spirit in The Turn of the Screw). The Catholic ruler took refuge here on her way to claim the throne in 1553, however a protestant mob (said to be the Duke of Northumberland) burnt the manor down after the Queen escaped disguised as a dairymaid. Queen Mary repaid the owners by allowing the Hall to rebuilt using stone from nearby Cambridge Castle. Featuring a 100ft great hall, moat, chapel, and ancient ‘priest holes’, Sawston was, until recently, owned by hedge fund supremo Steven Coates.
THE UK RELEASE
Presented as part of Network Distributing’s The British Film collection, The Nightcomers is presented in a high definition transfer (on Blu-ray and DVD) from the original film elements, and includes original theatrical trailer, teaser trailer and gallery.
Posted on February 23, 2015, in British Film, Might See, Thriller and tagged 1970s British drama, British Film, Cambridgeshire, Fifty Shades of Grey, Marlon Brando, Michael Hastings, Michael Winner, Might See, Network Distributing, Robert Paynter, Sawston Hall, Stephanie Beacham, The British Film Collection, The Nightcomers, The Turn of the Screw, Thora Hird. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.