'The Haunting of Bly Manor': TV Review

The Haunting of Bly Manor
Courtesy of Netflix
Five episodes of haunting build-up, four episodes of exposition, but something is missing.
10/9/2020

Mike Flanagan takes on Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw' for his spooky-not-scary Netflix follow-up to 'The Haunting of Hill House.'

Expect nearly every critic reviewing Netflix's The Haunting of Bly Manor to include an important caveat in their reviews: Mike Flanagan's follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House presents itself as a ghost story, but it's actually a love story. It's not that we're being collectively clever in our genre analysis; a character late in the series literally explains that it's a love story and not a ghost story, just one of several points at which Flanagan's confidence in his audience wavers.

Still a craftsman of the highest level and a sensitive observer of the underpinnings that make genre storytelling so resonant, Flanagan has taken one of the most elegantly simple and enigmatic of novellas and found a way to over-explain everything from plot mechanics to theme, producing a nine-episode season that's sensuous, spooky and evasive one moment and cumbersomely obvious the next. You may want to wallow in this evocative world, but probably not as much as Flanagan does, which ends up being a real problem for long stretches.

Credited as based on the work of Henry James, but much more specifically adapted from The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Bly Manor is constructed as a tale told after a night of drinking at a wedding rehearsal dinner.

The story takes us back to 1987 (because of Flanagan's interest in high-waisted denim and discomfort with cell phones, presumably), when Dani (Victoria Pedretti) goes to interview with British barrister Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) about a live-in job tutoring for his orphaned niece and nephew at his manor house in the country.

Henry wants to know the catch that would cause a young American to want to take on a glorified nanny gig far off the grid. Dani wants to know the catch that has caused Henry's job listing to be open for many months. She seems too good to be true. The job seems too good to be true. Don't worry, there are catches aplenty.

Driven by chef/valet/mustache-model Owen (Rahul Kohli), Dani arrives at the stately manor, one of those abodes that comes with a creepy rectory, a creepy pond and a creepy wing of the house that nobody's allowed into. She meets housekeeper Hannah (T'Nia Miller), gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve) and kids Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith).

Miles, expelled from boarding school under mysterious circumstances, is generally creepy, but Flora hits some sort of brooding gothic trifecta: She's constantly talking to people who aren't there, she sleepwalks and she has an absurdly detailed dollhouse resembling Bly Manor and full of faceless poppets. Throw in that the kids' parents died under mysterious circumstances and their former nanny (Tahirah Sharif's Miss Jessel) died under even more mysterious circumstances and that's a lot of mysterious circumstances.

They don't even cover the lurking stranger (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) Dani keeps spotting on the property, the reasons why Henry won't visit the manor or the creepy creature with glowing eyes (straight out of Stephen King's The Outsider) that Dani keeps seeing in mirrors.

Flanagan's The Haunting of Hill House was one of the surprise pleasures of 2018, an expansion of Shirley Jackson's brief novel that somehow barely felt padded at 10 episodes. It was full of effective jump scares and marrow-rattling chills, anchored by a superb ensemble and a cleverly unfolding allegory about grief and addiction. Its peaks, especially the epic mid-season punch of "The Bent-Neck Lady" and "Two Storms," were almost unimaginably high.

The Haunting of Bly Manor achieves no comparable peaks — plus Netflix prefers that we not discuss the season's standout, format-bending episode — though the first few episodes establish their mood in methodical and involving fashion.

After directing the entirety of Hill House, Flanagan only starts Bly Manor behind the camera before passing off to a team of genre veterans including Ciaran Foy (Sinister 2), Yolanda Ramke & Ben Howling (Cargo) and E.L. Katz (Channel Zero). Flanagan establishes a familiar template of rich composition in which you can't take your eye off of any inch of the frame for fear that's the corner that might be passed through by a spectral figure or a subliminal flash of something malevolent.

The simmering mood is enhanced by the performances, especially Smith and Ainsworth, who are already doing mature variations on the familiar Spooky British Kid. And that's before the story evolves in a way that, as anybody who had to read the source material might still remember from junior high, becomes vastly more complicated. Smith is especially good, shifting between a chirpy child prone to pronouncing things "perfectly splendid!" and a figure haunted by events that emerge as the story progresses. (Flanagan and casting director Annie McCarthy also scored with the juvenile actors in Hill House.)

There are odd accent things going on with the older stars, from Henry Thomas and a familiar guest star Netflix oddly doesn't want spoiled going British to Jackson-Cohen's Shrek-adjacent brogue and even Pedretti, an American playing EXTRA American. But that doesn't mean the performances are bad.

Pedretti generates instant empathy, Kohli follows up his iZombie work with another likable turn, Jackson-Cohen gives off smoldering Big Bad Wolf vibes and Miller shines in the season's showcase acting episode, a fifth hour that kicks off an ultra-deliberate unfolding of who and what is haunting Bly Manor.

Flanagan and his writing team are working with the idea of possession, not just in the literal senses of ownership and demonic occupation, but in the sense that marriage is presented in romantic terms as the binding of souls. How much does falling in love mean surrendering your ideal of an individual self to become part of a collective couple and what is the line between that prospect being scary but exciting or just simply scary? And once you become committed to a future union, what happens to your solo past? What grounds you to who you are and what grounds places to their identities? How much is history rooted in facts and events and how much in memory, capricious as that might be?

There's a lot to chew on here and there would be even if Flanagan didn't spell everything out in exhausting detail over four exposition-heavy episodes. Part of why James' novella is still taught today is because almost everything that transpires is open to interpretation. So it can be as supernatural (or not) as you want, as rooted in Victorian Era sexual repression (or not) as you want, as nebulously unsettling or downright disturbing as you want.

Flanagan just comes right out and explains everything, including multiple episodes driven by flashback and backstory. As earnestly as the entire cast plays every beat, nothing is better for being over-explained. Even making a jumble of the timeline is a sorry substitute for leaving ambiguity in the text.

With four or five episodes of foundation-laying and four or five episodes of explanation, The Haunting of Bly Manor is a minimum of two or three episodes too long. For all its ramping up of tension, actual scares are almost completely absent. The performances and emotional stakes keep The Haunting of Bly Manor watchable despite that, but on those terms the season would have played better at six goosebump-filled episodes.

Cast: Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Eve, T'Nia Miller, Rahul Kohli, Tahirah Sharif, Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Henry Thomas
Creator: Mike Flanagan, from the novella by Henry James
Premieres Friday, Oct. 9 on Netflix.