Review: The Haunting of Bly Manor is a perfectly splendid ghost story


That’s a reference to the 1961 British film adaptation, The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr—probably the best of the many versions of the tale that have been adapted for various media. (Bly Manor contains several nods to the film, including the use of the haunting song, “O Willow Waly.”) The most recent film adaptation, The Turning, released earlier this year, is the worst of the bunch by far, despite a solid performance by star Mackenzie Davis.

Flanagan’s version preserves James’ narrative framing device of guests at an inn listening to a ghost story. But he updates it to a 2007 wedding held in Northern California, with an unnamed female guest (Carla Gugino, who played the Crain matriarch in Hill House) serving as narrator. He also keeps much of the central plot from Turn of the Screw, at least in the beginning. (The story diverges quite a bit by season’s end.) Danielle “Dani” Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) applies for the job of live-in governess to two orphans, the niece and nephew of Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas). He is initially reluctant to hire her, but she persuades him otherwise and soon finds herself at Bly Manor, the Wingrave family’s sprawling estate in the English countryside.

House of secrets

Her young charges are Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Smith). The house is run like clockwork by Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), with the help of the cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli), and a groundskeeper, Jamie (Amelia Eve). But Dani soon notices the occasional strange behavior of the children and spots a mysterious man lurking at the windows. The man matches the description of Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Henry Wingrave’s former valet, who mysteriously vanished after embezzling from his employer. Quint had romanced the former governess, Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), who purportedly drowned herself in the lake (really more of a large pond) on the estate. Dani gradually begins to realize that there is something seriously wrong at Bly Manor.

Each of the nine episode titles reference a specific Jamesian ghost story, including “The Way It Came” (also known as “The Friends of the Friends”), “The Two Faces,” “The Great Good Place,” “The Altar of the Dead,” and “The Pupil.” Elements of all of them are woven throughout the season. The most directly significant to Bly Manor‘s secret, revealed in the penultimate episode, is “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes.” (Do not read this story if you haven’t yet finished watching Bly Manor.) There are also elements from “Sir Edmund Orme” in the bespectacled figure Dani keeps spotting in mirrors, and Henry Wingrave’s peculiar psychological torment is drawn from “The Jolly Corner“—one of the last ghost stories James wrote, and by far the most difficult to parse. Dani’s speech in the final episode clearly evokes “The Beast in the Jungle“:

I have this feeling like I’m walking through the dense, overgrown jungle and I can’t really see anything except the path in front of me. But I know there’s this thing hidden. This angry, empty, lonely beast. It’s watching me. Matching my movements. Just out of sight. But I can feel it. I know it’s there. And it’s waiting.

There are a lot of narrative threads to juggle here, and Flanagan somehow does manage to pull them all together in the end, which is quite a feat given the diversity of his source material. But drawing from so many different Jamesian stories might be why Bly Manor doesn’t quite achieve the same power and cohesiveness as Hill House, although the writing and performances are still excellent. Miller in particular gives a heartbreaking portrayal of Hannah Grose, whose painful self-revelation anchors the fifth episode (“The Altar of the Dead”). Yet it still can’t match the jaw-dropping fifth episode of Hill House (“The Bent-Neck Lady”), which emotionally shattered many a viewer, myself included.

James’ stories also aren’t “ghost stories” in the traditional sense, in that the ghosts, when they appear (assuming that they overtly appear—often they do not) do so only at the very end. The bulk of the action usually takes place in drawing rooms, or during dinner parties, in keeping with the author’s great novels (The Bostonians, Portrait of a Lady). James takes his time, and Bly Manor mirrors that slow deliberate pace.

For all the tragedies, psychological trauma, and ghostly hauntings, there’s still a bit of playfulness to the making of this anthology series. Part of the marketing campaign for Bly Manor included posting a tongue-in-cheek “official” Zillow listing for the estate, chock-full of sly references for those who have seen the show. (The house is off-market, of course, although the description claims it’s been listed for “eternity.”) Of particular ominous note: the master wing is “off limits,” and the house contains plentiful “markings of its previous residents [that] can be found all over the estate.” In other words, the place has ghosts.

That’s another Flanagan signature for this series: he’s hidden extra ghosts in plain sight (technically in the background shadows, but easily spotted) in both Hill House and Bly Manor. They were mostly there as abstractions—fun little Easter eggs—in the former, but for Bly Manor, there is ultimately an explanation for who the ghosts are, and why they are present. In addition to a plague doctor and a little boy, one of the ghosts is a soldier—likely a sly allusion to James’ “Owen Wingrave,”  which involves a young man rebelling against the expectations of his military family and a haunted room.

“No such place by that name”

With Hill House, there wasn’t any question that the haunting was real. But literary scholars and critics have been debating The Turn of the Screw ever since it was first published, because James was deliberately ambiguous as to whether the governess is seeing actual ghosts or simply going mad and imagining them.

The initial screenwriter for The Innocents, William Archibald, assumed the ghosts were real; Director Jack Clayton preferred to be true to James’ original ambiguity, and the final script ended up somewhere in between, with some pretty strong Freudian overtones. For The Turning, Director Floria Sigismondi went with the “insane governess” hypothesis and enhanced the Freudian overtones significantly. (Fortunately, the character of Miles, played by Finn Wolfhard, is a teenager, not a child, in The Turning, otherwise it would have been even more disturbing.)

Flanagan dispenses with the “crazy governess” option altogether and wisely leaves things open to individual interpretation as to whether the narrator is just telling a spooky ghost story or whether the events really happened. There’s evidence for both. For instance, when a wedding guest asks whether the story is true, our narrator responds, “No, I suspect if you flew to England, you’d find no such place by that name.” But the bride’s middle name turns out to be Flora, and as the narrator surveys the various guests during the reception, she flashes back to the central characters of her tale—with the clear implication being that the story is at least loosely based on these “real” people.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  For the narrator, the story is “true” in a less literal sense, in that it captures essential truths about loving and losing someone dear, as well as how to process grief and find a way to keep their memories alive. As she tells Flora when the bride confesses to being afraid of dying before her new husband, all ghost stories, in the end, are love stories. The narrator tells Flora that, if tragedy strikes, she will eventually find little pieces of her life that remind her of her lost love, “and you’ll hold them tight. It’ll be like he’s here with you. Even though he’s gone.”

Verdict: The Haunting of Bly Manor might not be everyone’s cup of tea—Henry James can be a difficult writer to appreciate, never mind successfully adapt to a new medium. But the show paid homage to his work, tonal style, and favorite themes beautifully; Flanagan and his team deserve kudos for that.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is currently streaming on Netflix. With Halloween fast approaching, it’s a perfect October binge.

From Hill House to Bly Manor: Behind the Scenes, featuring anthology series creator Mike Flanagan and Executive Producer Trevor Macy.

Listing image by Netflix



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