Review: The Haunting of Bly Manor

This was originally published on October 11th, 2020.

Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel of the same name, was an absolute masterclass in emotive storytelling, story adaptation, and filmmaking. This time, Flanagan continues to reinvent great stories of the past as the second installment of The Haunting explores Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”. The Haunting of Bly Manor doesn’t quite live up to Hill House, but it’s still one hell of an experience.

Our story begins in 1987 with Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), a young American teacher who responds to an ad for a governess position in England to care for two orphaned children: Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea). After convincing their distant uncle Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) to hire her, Dani arrives at Bly Manor where she finds the children to be “perfectly splendid,” in the overused words of Flora. She also joins the company of housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), and groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve).

Bly Manor feels warm and inviting at first, but it soon begins to evoke unease and discomfort as something haunts the estate. Flora is the most whimsical child. She’s well-mannered and enjoys playing with her dolls, but she’s always looking at something or someone over Dani’s shoulder. Miles, on the other hand, is less childlike. He often acts like a 30-year-old man, peering into Dani’s room as she’s changing and tucking her hair behind her ear.

The other staff members, whose personalities invite joy into the Manor, put the children’s odd behaviour down to the amount of grief they’ve experienced at such a young age. In addition to their parents, the previous governess, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), died six months ago on the property in a mystery involving Henry’s old associate, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). It becomes apparent that the children are well-acquainted with the things that go bump in the night, and Dani happens to have a ghost of her own tied to the tragic past she’s running from.

Each episode of Bly Manor is named after a short story by James, which features elements from said stories. This is a generous tribute to James, but it’s far too much to tackle. While most inclusions are quite clever, it makes the series feel directionless as the focus is usually on whichever self-contained story it’s trying to tell, rather than the main narrative strand. This results in there not being enough overarching substance to stretch over nine one-hour episodes as the main story gets lost. The strands that seamlessly connect, however, make for impressive and mind-blowing twists when they finally come together.

The pace is constantly interrupted by episodes ending abruptly or endless amounts of emotional flashback storytelling just as the action is picking up or getting interesting. As there’s a lot of story and characters to contend with, some of the backstories feel like they’ve been quickly inserted in and not explored deep enough to create the emotional depth perfected by Hill House. One major thrilling action sequence toward the end is paused for an entire episode that takes place in the 17th century to provide a fleshed out backstory for the dark origins of Bly Manor — the episode itself is taken from another one of James’ short stories, getting more focus than most.

This time around, Flanagan only directed and wrote the teleplay for the first episode as he gives up-and-coming directors, such as Ciarán Foy and directing-duo Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, a chance to shine. While none of them do a bad job, the lack of Flanagan’s tight and disciplined storytelling and filmmaking style doesn’t go unnoticed. However, the use of multiple writers and directors could be intended to complement each episodes’ exploration of another one of James’ short stories.

Flanagan has often said he prefers to create tension in his work by making use of negative space, darkness, and camera movements so the audience can imagine and fear what could happen, rather than relying on what does. This was achieved expertly in Hill House and these elements can still be found at Bly Manor, even though the sense of dread ebbs and flows throughout the series. While Bly Manor is light on the scares, the ones that do happen are fun, frightful, and highly effective.

The cast for this season is made up of new and familiar faces. Thomas, Pedretti, Jackson-Cohen, and Kate Siegel (whose character is a surprise, alongside Carla Gugino’s) all play completely different characters to their Hill House counterparts, proving just how talented they are, despite Thomas’ shaky British accent. Pedretti gives a heartbreaking and nuanced performance, but in different ways than she did as Hill House’s Nell Crain. She carries around misplaced guilt and grief, so close to her that those emotions could be sitting right in her pocket, ready to spill out.

Eve is another breakout star who utterly becomes her character Jamie. Like Pedretti, her on-screen presence is intoxicating, as is Miller’s, whose quiet and complex emotional performance steals every scene she’s in. Ainsworth and Bea prove themselves to be capable of portraying more than just a couple of children, in what are emotionally demanding performances. They are creepy at times, but less so than in the novel and Jack Clayton’s haunting 1961 film adaptation The Innocents.

Flanagan’s entire filmography shows that he has a remarkable talent for blending real-world horrors of trauma and grief with scary supernatural elements, which is exactly what can be found in Bly Manor. The series is ultimately about how grief follows you around, but as one character says, “it’s not a ghost story. It’s a love story.” At its heart, Bly Manor is a gothic romance that evokes mystery and excitement, but also horror and ruin for many of its characters. The last episode is a painful punch in the gut that will make you cry, enough to still be sobbing as the end credits roll while a vulnerable song plays, and it’s one of those moments where reality feels altered, because you’ve just experienced something remarkably sad, but powerfully moving.

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Toni Stanger

Freelancer writer on mainly film and television, but sometimes dabbles in celeb culture. Covers mostly horror and female-led media for Screen Queens.