Review: The Haunting of Bly Manor
Mike Flanagan's 1980s set reimagining of The Turn of the Screw leaves little to the imagination
Written by Katherine McLaughlin
There’s a hugely quotable line in Guillermo del Toro’s gothic masterpiece Crimson Peak, where Lucille says, “The horror was for love.” She continues saying, “The things we do for love like this are ugly, mad, full of sweat and regret. This love burns you and maims you and twists you inside out.” Those words and an impatient desire to revisit Allerdale Hall kept popping to mind while viewing Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor; a loose adaptation and reworking of a selection of Henry James’ work, predominantly The Turn of the Screw, that displays flashes of brilliance but gets lost in an indulgent run-time and soapy acting.
This nine-episode gothic romance is less focused on frights and jump scares than the previous Netflix anthology entry by Flanagan The Haunting of Hill House, but still toys with beloved ghost stories in a similar manner. The young governess who takes on the care of two children in the aforementioned 1898 novella by James is now American au pair, Dani Clayton (played by Victoria Pedretti whose character name nods to Jack Clayton’s chilling classic The Innocents) and the year is 1987.
The imposing mansion that Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) inhabit is filled with overwhelming grief (they have recently lost their parents and previous nanny Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif)), ghosts and anguish, but also love – something that the show explores in detail as it fleshes out the characters backstories while losing the ambiguity of its source material. That loss of ambiguity doesn’t serve the story well, making the opening few episodes a patience testing exercise, even if the dynamics between the ensemble cast are splendid to watch. Once the mechanics of what’s really going on are revealed the painstaking detail of the storytelling from there on in plays out in an intriguing fashion.
It’s Dani’s story that serves as the central way into the series, the mystery of her previous life in the USA haunting her every move in the English (actually Vancouver) countryside, and the question of what she is running away from materialising in spooky form. The story is being told in a retrospective manner in the year 2007 by a guest (Carla Gugino) at a wedding, who gives as much import to the supporting characters’ tragic backstories as the main protagonist's. Housekeeper Mrs Grose (T'Nia Miller), chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), dashing and sinister businessman Peter (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Uncle Henry (Henry Thomas) are all dealing with loss and as the series unfolds the more you learn about the impact that the bonds of love have had on their lives.
Guilt, fear, memory, repressed sexuality, trauma, toxic relationships and escaping the past are the big themes at play yet the way they are handled leaves little to the imagination. Overall, the series is far too laboured in its delivery, robbing it of agency when it comes to the depiction of the things people do in the name of love. Still, Kohli and Miller turn in affecting performances and some of the ideas summoned by the ghosts who wander the corridors of Bly Manor are refreshingly novel.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is now available to watch on Netflix.
Creator: Mike Flanagan
Executive Producers: Mike Flanagan, Trevor Macy, Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey
Running Time: 9 x 1 hour
Cast: Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Eve, T'Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli