The Haunting of Bly Manor comes as a spiritual successor two years after Mike Flanagan‘s first foray on Netflix, The Haunting of Hill House. Like its predecessor, Bly Manor is based off of another work of horror fiction, this time by acclaimed English author Henry James, The Turn of the Screw.
The story follows a young governess named Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) arriving at a country home to teach and look after Henry Wingrave’s (Henry Thomas) niece and nephew, Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). At the house, she meets Owen (Rahul Kohli), the cook/chauffeur, Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), the housekeeper, and Jamie (Amelia Eve), the gardener. Dani arrives after a recent tragedy in the house, replacing the previous governess, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), who had a torrid affair with Henry’s jack-of-all-trades employee, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).
It doesn’t take long for the story to start unfurling and beneath the surface of this tranquil English story lies a past that just won’t die. Flanagan based The Haunting of Bly Manor not only on The Turn of the Screw, but on multiple works by James (including The Jolly Corner and The Romance of Certain Old Clothes). Instead of creating a direct adaptation, Flanagan said, “Our Governess (whose name is an homage to Jack Clayton) will not follow in Deborah Kerr’s footsteps, not exactly…as with Hill House, we wanted to make something at once old and new; reimagined and reverent.”
At the center of Bly Manor is love. Many love stories told many different ways, interlinked and intertwined. “In Henry James’ world, ‘romance’ had a different connotation,” Flanagan explains. “Romance meant mystery and excitement – and Gothic Romance meant horror and ruin. Romance held buried secrets, supernatural agony, and the sense of encroaching doom.”
This is the perfect description of Bly Manor. It’s not horror in the manner of gore or overt jump scares, instead it relies on the subtleties of human connection and the tragedies of circumstance or coincidence. Having been trained by Hill House, I found myself constantly looking into every detail, over-analyzing, theorizing, and hypothesizing on what was the secret behind this or that. Plot twists are immensely satisfying for the audience sleuth who loves to read into every detail from the costuming to turns of phrases.
While undoubtedly atmospherically creepy and scary, Bly Manor lacks some of the horror found in Hill House, but that’s fine, it works as a story about love, loss, and yearning. Bly Manor is tender in a way that its predecessor was not. I was moved to tears by sorrow as much as I was jumping out of my seat in shock. Flanagan is simply a master storyteller and superb at weaving complex themes with the most creative storytelling. He is an ideal choice for adaptation, adhering to the soul of the original story but modernizing and evolving it into something new.
While I do lament that Bly Manor did not satisfy my itch for hair-raising scares, that is where most of my criticism starts and ends. Alongside Flanagan’s creative genius also comes the strength of his cast. Returning for a second time is Henry Thomas, Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Kate Siegel. Viewers will remember them as Hugh, Nell, Luke, and Theo, respectively, of the Crain family. Joining them are newcomers T’Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli, Amelia Eve, Tahirah Sharif, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Amelie Bea Smith, Katie Parker, Alex Essoe, and Matthew Holness.
It’s an absolute delight to see Pedretti in the spotlight this time. She’s proven herself time and time again as an emotive and expressive actress. Miller, no stranger to Netflix series from her time on Sex Education, is another marvel to behold. She takes the character of Hannah Grose to devastating heights, giving an emotional performance that left me in shambles by the end of the series. Ainsworth and Smith both shone playing Miles and Flora, the young children Dani takes care of at Bly. For those who know James’ story The Turn of the Screw will know that this particular story requires a lot from young actors and they did not disappoint.
There is a certain finesse required to accomplish the story of Bly Manor and for the most part, Flanagan succeeds. There are moments when he stumbles, where reveals are played out with a heavy hand even if they might already be obvious to the audience. These are rare and are outweighed by some of the most fantastic reveals. Flanagan is such a pro at bringing together disparate threads of plot that I found myself searching for it. The few moments when my hounding didn’t reach a conclusion left me hungry for a rewatch, sure that my answers were hidden in the shadows. Much like Hill House, Bly Manor rewards multiple rewatches. It’s another success for Flanagan and has me wondering what hauntings we’ll see next!
The Haunting of Bly Manor streams October 9th, 2020 on Netflix.