The Haunting of Bly Manor review: Netflix's Hill House follow-up is both genuinely creepy and disappointingly overwrought

What makes The Haunting of Bly Manor different from other adaptations of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw? The short answer seems to be: more ghosts.

Rohini Nair October 12, 2020 12:38:48 IST
The Haunting of Bly Manor review: Netflix's Hill House follow-up is both genuinely creepy and disappointingly overwrought

Tolstoy told us that 'all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way', and perhaps the same holds true for un-haunted and haunted houses as well: That seems to be the premise of the Mike Flanagan-created 'The Haunting Of' franchise, which visited Hill House from Shirley Jackson's book of the same name, in its Netflix debut, and now drops in at Bly Manor, to update the story of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw for its second season.

The nine-episode season became available to stream on Friday, 9 October, and quickly answers the question of what makes it different from other Turn of the Screw adaptations. (After all, the 'modernising' of James' 1898 story was already achieved in the recent Mackenzie Davis-Finn Wolfhard film, The Turning.) That answer, in short, is: more ghosts.

The Haunting of Bly Manor uses the same plot and narrative device as James' tale: a governess arrives at an English country house to take charge of two orphaned children called Flora and Miles. Hired by their guardian (an absentee uncle) the young woman initially finds her new wards charming and angelic to a fault, only to later discover that they're tied in some way to sinister apparitions haunting the house — the spirits of their former governess, who died by suicide, and her paramour, the valet. The account of her struggle to save the children from demonic possession is recounted to a group of listeners years later, by a friend to whom she entrusted a manuscript.

To this plot, the Clarkson Twins — the writers for The Haunting of Bly Manor — add more layers, and characters. The governess (in this case, au pair) is an American recently arrived in the UK. Danielle (Victoria Pedretti) is afflicted by ghosts of her own, even before she arrives at Bly. The manor, relatively harmless in Henry James' story, becomes a more malevolent entity in this retelling, cast in the mould of Hill House, where a place itself can exert a vile influence on its residents. Some characters from The Turn of the Screw — like Bly's housekeeper Hannah Grose (played here by T'Nia Miller) and the children's uncle Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) — get detailed back-stories, while others are newly introduced — the cook Owen (Rahul Kohli), and groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve).

Bly Manor's story is split mainly across four timelines: the late 17th century, when the house is inhabited by two sisters Viola (Kate Siegel) and Perdita (Katie Parker), whose actions shape its subsequent misfortunes; 1986, when Danielle's predecessor Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif) takes up the job at Bly and meets Henry's valet Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen); 1987, which marks Danielle's arrival, triggering the main developments of this season; and 2007, when these developments are being narrated to a group of guests gathered for a wedding in California. The timelines are complicated not only due to several flashbacks, but also because many of the characters — most of the dead and at least some of the living — can "tuck [themselves] away" in a memory, "dream-hopping" to previous events while still ostensibly in the present.

This nonlinear notion of time is something Bly Manor borrows from The Haunting of Hill House (along with, of course, a section of the cast — all Mike Flanagan regulars; Victoria Pedretti's character being driven to the edge by visitations; frames with hidden figures; and a certain signature scene). In Hill House, we see Pedretti's character Nell explain that "time is like confetti", moments scattering around us like rain or snow. This idea is executed brilliantly in Bly Manor's Episode 5, where Hannah Grose finds herself stuck in a discombobulating loop — déjà vu that leads to a poignant denouement.

The Haunting of Bly Manor review Netflixs Hill House followup is both genuinely creepy and disappointingly overwrought

All stills from The Haunting of Bly Manor | Netflix

The Haunting of Bly Manor review Netflixs Hill House followup is both genuinely creepy and disappointingly overwrought

The other 'keys' to Bly Manor are provided by the characters themselves: Flora and Miles both mention that the "dead aren't gone" — this is construed by the adults as a comforting thing, as meaning that those we love never leave us, even in death. However, Miles and Flora, more attuned to the supernatural than the grown-ups, mean it far more literally. The dead aren't gone — at least not those who die at Bly. They're stuck. The children devise ways to keep track of the ghosts and protect the adults from the most dreadful among them — the white-gowned, long-haired, faceless "lady of the lake" who drags her victims into her watery 'home' on Bly's grounds.

The second 'key' is found in Hannah Grose's categorising of Rebecca Jessel's relationship with Peter Quint as a "glue trap". Hannah tells Owen about a glue trap put down for mice, as a "humane" alternative to poison or other kinds of devices; she sees a small object stuck to such a trap once, and realises it's the foot of a mouse — the animal gnawed it off to get away from the trap. Bly is like a glue trap — the danger is not immediately evident to those caught in its grasp, but should they try to leave, they'll find soon enough that the house has them firmly in its grip.

Taken together, these two 'keys' mean that a rewatch of The Haunting of Bly Manor is quite rewarding. Knowing what you do, you see just how much of the dialogue has a meaning that directly alludes to later occurrences. There's also the considerable advantage of being able to skip the duller aspects of these nine episodes.

Mike Flanagan's adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House made for compelling viewing, in part, because it cut out the vast swathes of maudlin text from Shirley Jackson's original to spin a tauter narrative. Bly Manor does the opposite. The Turn of the Screw is a slim novella, which the Clarksons' half-baked worldbuilding bloats inordinately. Episode 8, which depicts Viola and Perdita's past, is among the patchiest bits of writing in the whole series, even though it contains the big reveal for what ails Bly Manor. These two characters are inconsistent, their motivations thin, and the narration towards the end so repetitive that you're quite ready to be done with it all.

Bly Manor also picks up the worst aspect of The Haunting of Hill House: its schmaltzy, overwrought ending. In attempting to convince us that Bly is "not a ghost story but a love story", through a weepy, long-drawn epilogue, it undoes a lot of the good work of its genuinely creepy first half. It also suffers from the somewhat gratuitous and heavy-handed attempts to make it fit into the Haunting Of-verse: most of the cast are pitch perfect in their roles (especially Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, who play Flora and Miles respectively, and T'Nia Miller as Hannah) but the inclusion of Kate Siegel and Carla Gugino, and even that aforementioned signature scene, feels like breaking kayfabe.

The problem with Bly Manor also seems to be that it isn't able to fully commit to either breaking away from or staying true to Henry James' text. Moments when the series is most faithful to the novella can feel dated. The irony is that its departures from The Turn of the Screw constitute both Bly Manor's high points — and its lowest.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —

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