The transference of opera to film can be fraught with difficulties. In worst case scenarios, it can be disastrous. However in the present case, it is a wonderful success. Ghost stories, perhaps, would seem ideal candidates, and Henry James' story in Benjamin Britten's setting emerges magnificently.
The actual scenery is perfectly chosen, showing a world where even when the sun shines it is not really light. A world whose normative status lies somewhere between the real and the unreal, a (figuratively and, sometimes, literally) twilit world. The disturbing images of death in the form of the cemetery are taken from Highgate Cemetery. Visually, it makes for an unforgettable effect. The distinction between the Dead and the Living is not clear in this world - a point made explicit when, at one point, the Governess faints and the camera shoots her in the same way as if she were one of the corpses.
Mark Padmore it is that narrates the piano-accompanied introduction. Here he is very much on home turf, his voice sounding much more at home than in the recent Wigmore Müllerin. Immediately, the emotional scene is set. Images of Flora, smiling, playing, are offset by mysterious figures, slow-motion and, of course, Britten's own pungently-fragranced music. A doll floats in the water, clearly drowned. The solitary doll's head, removed from the torso, immediately before we 'meet' (visually) Miles and Flora, is the image of the disturbing recurrent theme of the opera, 'The Ceremony of Innocence is drowned'. Visually, it makes for an unforgettable effect. Padmore narrates perfectly, his diction beyond criticism.
The excellent Lisa Milne takes the part of the Governess, her soliloquy as she approaches in her carriage an excellent introduction to her inner state. The meeting of Governess with Mrs Grose (Diana Montague) and the children, and the passages immediately beforehand prepares us for Montague's agile yet strong assumption of her part. There is surely something special in the way she greets the children '..this must be Flora ... and Miles', the emphasis surely prophetic.
Having impressed so much in the Prologue, Padmore does not disappoint elsewhere. Make-up and costume should be noticed, too, for when he is seen peering through the window he does look genuinely insane (as the children sing 'Tom, Tom the piper's son' in Act 1). His calls to Miles are at once inviting and blood-curdlingly sinister. His partner in death, Miss Jessel (Catrin Wyn Davies) is entirely his match (exhibiting a superb lower range in the process).
Diana Montague is just as superb as her colleagues as Mrs Grose. Only at her outburst, 'Dear God, is there no end to his dreadful ways?' (intercut with shots of corpses) could even more shivers have shot down the back, yet the conversation here with the Governess (shot in sepia) is miraculously intense.
Of the two children it is of course Miles who has the lion's share, and Nicholas Kirby Johnson is truly excellent, his rendition of the important 'Malo' tune heart-rending, the fragility of his voice entirely appropriate. Yet as a twosome they impress, too (as in the Act 1 lesson). The close of the opera is ultra-touching. Britten ensures, compositionally, that its emotive appeal is all but indestructible, but heightened in this sort of fashion it becomes truly memorable.
Richard Hickox impresses on this occasion more than ever before. He seems intent on bringing out the Stravinskian, brittle side of Britten's writing (Soldier's Tale sprung to mind on plenty of occasions). Places of repose are beautifully caught, although at one point (track 5), the extended interlude is used to underpin misty shots of nature, with Miss Jessel (from the waist down) strolling amongst them - only at this point was there the impression that Britten's evocative writing became accompanying film music (although it has to be admitted that the sunlight at the Governess' 'How beautiful it is' works marvellously after this). The pared-down City of London Sinfonia seem not to put a foot wrong throughout.
In keeping with the feeling of 'focus' of this product, there are no gimmicky extras. A spoken synopsis is well-delivered, and there are some photos of the cast. Nothing more is needed, anyway.