Hired as governess for a pair of orphaned children, American Dani Clayton (Pedretti) starts her new job at a country estate in Essex. Once there, however, she is troubled by her charges’ strange behaviour and begins to wonder if there is more going on at Bly Manor than meets the eye.
Henry James’ gothic novella, The Turn Of The Screw, is oft held up as one of the greatest ghost stories ever told. Over the past century it has been turned into an opera, two ballets, nine films, ten TV series, a Harold Pinter-directed play and an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It’s even been adapted once this year already, as dreary yarn The Turning. In spite of all that, James’ screw receives one further turn here, this time as the second instalment in Mike Flanagan’s Haunting anthology.
Like 2018’s The Haunting Of Hill House, though, Bly Manor is more remix than straight retelling. The show plays liberally with the source material, while drawing on themes from several of James’ other works to create a longer, winding tale that more readily fills nine hour-long episodes. Where it differs from its predecessor most notably, though, is in velocity. Where Hill House began with chills aplenty from the off, Bly — like its governess — takes some time to settle in.
The manor itself is a warm, friendly place — quite the contrast to Hill House’s dark and sinister halls — and Dani (Victoria Pedretti), the nanny, arrives bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the summer of 1987, wearing alarmingly high-waisted trousers to emphasise the era. It’s here we’re introduced to Rees-Moggian moppets Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (an exceptional Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), in mourning for parents killed abroad and for their former nanny, who drowned on the premises some months thereafter. Aside from the housekeeper (T’Nia Miller), gardener (Amelia Eve) and a pun-happy chef (Rahul Kohli), the children are the only inhabitants of this vast country estate. Except, of course, they’re not. But aside from subtle hints at Bly’s less corporeal residents (Hill’s hidden-in-plain-sight ghouls make a return here), the nature of the haunting takes a surprising while to reveal itself. Childish pranks, muddy footprints and a creepy, faceless doll make for the bulk of the show’s early happenings, with little in the way of real scares or much sense of dread, save an admonition not to wander the halls at night.
Where Hill House began with chills aplenty, Bly — like its governess — takes some time to settle in.
It’s for this reason, most likely, that Dani brings more than just a suitcase in the way of baggage. The nanny in this retelling has ghosts of her own, covering mirrors to prevent glimpses of a moon-eyed spectre that lurks just out of sight. Some of the others, too, are brushed by the uncanny, from an ominous crack that follows the housekeeper wherever she goes, to a grinning reflection of the children’s absentee uncle (a returning Henry Thomas, whose wildly inconsistent accent is one of the season’s more unsettling features). These embellishments add to the mystery and keep us guessing as to where the plot will eventually lead, but don’t always fit seamlessly with the central narrative, having been drawn from a number of different sources. Elements of James’ The Jolly Corner and The Romance Of Certain Old Clothes, among others, are baked into the main story here, adding texture and variety while also crowding out some of the more subtle, psychological aspects of the original Screw.
Like the story’s most famous adaptation, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (a major influence — Dani’s surname is no accident), Bly Manor abandons the novella’s Freudian ruminations and conscious ambiguity. The spooks at play here are dangerously real and, once they’re unleashed, the story does pick up the pace. As perspective shifts from episode to episode and flashbacks fill out the plot, we’re slowly but surely drawn in to a doom-laden gothic romance that ponders issues of consent and coercive control as well as things that go bump in the night.
Being more concerned with romance than trauma, Bly’s is a very different Haunting to that of Hill House, but one that also feels to have suffered from Flanagan’s more hands-off approach (his direction limited to a single episode this time around). There are some bold storytelling choices and a fluid chronology keeps things interesting, but this is neither as intricate nor intriguing as the time-bending puzzle box that made up the show’s first season. Most crucially, though, Bly never manages to chill the blood in quite the same way. There’s a sense of unease throughout and jump scares are doled out effectively enough, but true terror never sinks its claws in and there’s little danger of nightmare fodder here.
This is a fireside ghost story deftly told, with a sumptuous setting and surprises aplenty. It is, as its precocious children might say, “Perfectly splendid,” in itself. But following in the phantom footsteps of such an accomplished debut, Bly Manor’s wraiths seem mere shadows of what has come before.
An ambitious re-treading of a classic tale, The Haunting Of Bly Manor is a solid supernatural yarn, if one that suffers by comparison to its superior sibling.