The Haunting of Bly Manor review: Bly’s spirits bring the haunted manor back to life

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw gets a fleshed-out 21st-century Californian refresh, where ambiguity is traded for unequivocally real apparitions.

9 October 2020

By Anton Bitel

The Haunting of Bly Manor (2020)
Sight and Sound

The Haunting of Bly Manor is streaming on Netflix.

In Australia and New Zealand, there used to be a non-alcoholic beverage named Claytons, bottled and coloured to resemble a spirit, so that abstainers could have it without standing out from fellow drinkers. A popular advertising campaign for Claytons that ran in the 70s and 80s included the slogan “The drink you have when you’re not having a drink” – which has given rise to the use of ‘Claytons’ in Antipodean slang as an adjective meaning ‘ersatz’ or ‘sham’.

As it happens, Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series The Haunting of Bly Manor is not only itself full of spirits both real and imagined, but also adapts Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw whose most famous on-screen version, The Innocents (1961), was directed by Jack Clayton. Presumably in Clayton’s honour, James’s anonymous governess has here been named Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti).

The series might also be regarded as a Claytons (or ersatz) Turn of the Screw, taking all manner of liberties and licence with its source material, in much the same way that Flanagan’s previous Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House (2018) was a very free adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel (which was itself influenced by The Turn of the Screw).

The first episode of The Haunting of Bly Manor evokes the original while ringing its own changes. It opens at a wedding rehearsal dinner in northern California, 2007 (rather than at a Christmas Eve party in 19th-century England), not with a man reading a deceased governess’s manuscript but with a mysterious woman narrating a lengthy ghost story – although it entangles itself into James’s work when the narrator promises that the presence of two children in her story “gives the effect a turn of the screw”, quoting directly from the novella.

Twenty years earlier, in England, Dani is interviewed by London lawyer Lord Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) for a position as au pair (rather than governess) to his eight-year-old niece Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and 10-year-old nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), both recently orphaned. At her new home in Bly Manor, Dani becomes part of a close-knit family that includes the distracted live-in housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), the chef and occasional chauffeur Owen (Rahul Kohli) and dungareed gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve). Dani will also hear about her predecessor Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), who drowned herself in the lake out of love sickness – and she will spot on the building’s parapet a man who she will later discover is Henry’s larcenous, long missing employee Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).

T'nia Miller as Hannah, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth as Miles, Rahul Kohli as Owen, Amelie Smith as Flora and Victoria Pedretti as Dani

All this cleaves reasonably close to the template of James’s novella, save for some not insignificant changes to name and race and sex and era (and eventually sexuality), in a telling that manages to update the original while still ever looking back to (multiple) times past, and to more than one source. Jamie nicknames the new au pair ‘Poppins’.

Just as in FX’s hit American Horror Story (2011-) – a series with seemingly unconnected narratives each season in which returning actors play completely new characters – several key cast in Bly Manor (Pedretti, Thomas, Jackson-Cohen, Kate Siegel) have resurfaced from different roles in The Haunting of Hill House, thus forging an irrational connection between Flanagan’s two Netflix series (Flanagan himself talks as though they are two seasons of the same series).

Dani’s American provenance mirrors the outsider status of American natives James and Flanagan in this most English of scenarios. Although her inability to brew a decent cup of tea becomes a recurring joke in the show, marking her as a migrant misfit, she will settle in soon enough.

In fact, none of the series’ directors is British, and only three of the writers are (Laurie Penny and the Clarkson Twins, against Flanagan, his brother James, Diane Ademu-John, Angela LaManna, Rebecca Klingel, Leah Fong and Julia Bicknell). Occasionally this intrudes – as when the children’s father Dominic (Matthew Holness) repeatedly uses the Americanism ‘math’. For the most part, though, this clash of cultures suits the flow of an archetypically English heritage gothic whose course is forever altered by the intrusion of a modern American.

Amelie Smith as Flora and Victoria Pedretti as Dani in The Haunting of Bly Manor

By Episode 2, Flanagan’s willingness to diverge from James is clear. In the original, Miles simply returns to Bly after having been thrown out of his boarding school – but here, his behaviour at the school, and the events leading to his expulsion, are the entire focus, as a boy wilfully breaks bad for what will turn out to be good reasons.

In his first class at the school, a priest leads a discussion on the miracle of the Gadarene swine, told through three variants in the New Testament. “Why do the Gospel accounts differ?” asks the priest, his words serving as a reflexive comment on what we are watching. Flanagan is drawing attention to the legion of ways in which a story might be told and the story of The Turn of the Screw has been, across different media, even as he extrapolates his own version.

It is a pattern that will be repeated, episode after episode, as each of the characters is granted an elaborate backstory that fleshes out the bare bones of James’s text. With the perspective no longer restricted to the governess, the story can ripple out in new and unexpected directions.

Flashbacks, lent a fluid continuity through some very well-mounted match cuts, increase in tempo across the series as characters rapidly slip, or “dream-hop”, into different times and spaces, and are “tucked away” in comforting (or sometimes not so comforting) memories. The residents, living or dead, have become caught in the “glue trap” or “gravity well” of Bly Manor’s cursed confines, and while there, the only, partial escape can be into the past.

Pedretti as Dani with Benjamin Evan Ainsworth as Miles

In one such flashback in Episode 6, when Flora tells her uncle that she has been scared by a little boy in the house who lacks all facial features, Henry suggests that she give the boy “a name” and “a story”. That, in essence, is what Flanagan is doing to the dark lacunae in James’s text: filling them out with names and stories of his own, as well as with elements borrowed from some of James’s other stories (like ‘The Jolly Corner’, 1908; and ‘The Romance of Certain Old Clothes’, 1868).

Lost in this translation is the ambiguity that propelled James’s text – for here the ghosts, though in part metaphorical projections of Dani’s guilt-burdened, sexually repressed mind, are also unequivocally real, even eerily palpable apparitions.

The interests of Flanagan’s version nonetheless remain psychological: for while The Haunting of Bly Manor is as concerned with the persistence of the past as any ghost story, it is equally preoccupied with the slow, inexorable fading of living memory (a theme encapsulated by the dementia of Owen’s mother), and the oblivion that eventually overwhelms all.

Broken by loss, these characters can be fixed only by love – and so, between the narrative poles of an engagement and a wedding (with several funerals in between), Flanagan finds romance in James’s gothic and, as with Hill House and Doctor Sleep (2019), Flanagan’s cinema sequel to The Shining, he leaves his own muddy imprint in another’s haunted hallways. We are invited to drink deep of James’s gothic waters – but the sad sentimentalism of the final episode is surprisingly sobering.

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