3.5 out of 5 stars

From The Innocents (1961) to Presence of Mind (1999) to The Turning (2020), Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw has been adapted to the screen so many times that talking about another version feels redundant. Its premise is simple: a governess is hired to care for two orphaned siblings, Miles and Flora, at a large estate called Bly Manor. After seeing apparitions of Bly’s former deceased governess, Rebecca Jessel, as well as her partner, Peter Quint, the governess finds herself confronting the possibility the estate’s grounds may be haunted.

Hinging on a perpetual sense of ambiguity, The Turn of the Screw leaves all its conclusions about the estate implicit, deftly maintaining its suspense and uncertainty all the way to the end. Combine its open-ended quality with its narrative simplicity, and it becomes apparent just how easily the novella lends itself to narrative tinkering. It’s not difficult to notice that many of these adaptations expand on the manor’s history, add new characters to the estate, or offer concrete answers to the novel’s obscure conclusion. 

The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second season in filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting horror anthology series for Netflix, is just the latest in a long string of adaptations. Fresh off the success of the ambitious yet flawed The Haunting of Hill House (2018), Bly Manor uses several Gothic horror tropes to deliver yet another deeply emotional experience. Whereas Hill House focused on ghosts born from family trauma, Bly Manor focuses on ghosts born from love—depicting a host of haunting romance stories all trapped in the grounds of its titular estate. In what’s likely the better modern ode to James’s work in years, Bly Manor pulls from a number of his stories in a way that both understands and further enhances their themes. It’s not just another Turn of the Screw adaptation, but a sprawling expansion of adaptational boundaries that delivers an overarching hypothesis on what James’s work is really about.

At first glance, Bly Manor seems to retain many of The Turn of the Screw’s fundamental plot beats, with the only discernible difference being a slightly expanded cast and a modernized setting. In 2007, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) is hired as the au pair to Bly Manor’s two orphaned children, Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora Wingrave (Amelia Bea Smith). Upon arriving, she quickly becomes acquainted with the children as well as the manor’s faculty: Hannah (T’Nia Miller) the housekeeper; Owen (Rahul Kohli) the cook; and Jamie (Amelia Eve) the gardener. Just like the novella, however, various supernatural events involving the children lead Dani to learn about Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), the estate’s previous au pair, and her partner, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).

It’s from this point onward the series gradually diverges from the source material, expanding on its cast’s various psychological profiles while delivering crystal-clear conclusions. Driven by nuanced and distinct performances across the board, the characters are only made all the more memorable for how intricate their stories are. Dani, for one, is a witness to the death of her fiancée, causing her insurmountable guilt to manifest itself in the form of a spectre with glowing glasses. As for the faculty, Hannah’s more formal and delicate personality hides a rather shocking secret, while Jamie’s slightly oddball temperament reveals a much more gentle side as she and Dani gradually start to bond. For Rebecca and Peter, the two have the better part of three episodes dedicated to depicting their love and eventual deaths, in contrast to just a momentary explanation in the novella.

All of this gradual complexity’s in the service of a story that’s very deliberate about when it wants to show its hand. It’s a series entirely willing to give its storylines breathing room if it means it can develop them in a mature, sensible way while simultaneously introducing its apparitions one by one. The end result is a narrative where every ghost in the manor (manifest or not) has its own history, and where not many characters in the overarching puzzle feel undercooked.

Horror fans looking for traditional scares should also take note of the fact that Bly‘s narrative focus is almost entirely emotional and, in some ways, melodramatic. The Haunting series has been consistent about hitting emotional beats through the lens of horror tropes, but The Haunting of Bly Manor is more shameless than Hill House about using horror as a means to an end. As the story nears its conclusion, the show outright states “it’s not a ghost story… it’s a love story”—something made clear by the romance present in every corner of the story, as well as its relative drought of scares.

This isn’t to say that Bly Manor doesn’t have its problems. Unlike Hill House, though, it at least doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. For one, Bly Manor’s writing is a step up from Hill House’s tacky monologues and sometimes unnatural sense of humour, but there are vestigial traces of its predecessor’s dialogue. Interspersed throughout the series is voiceover narration provided by a mysterious storyteller (Carla Gugino), who often just explains away certain events on-screen instead of adding any noticeable insight to them. On the flip side, there’s just a few Hill House-esque monologue-rumination that would have done much, much better with tangible visual information to accompany them.

Regardless, they’re less prevalent and thus are less of a problem to deal with. Flanagan and his new team definitely seem to be more conscious of how to unveil their more unsettling and emotional beats in a visual way, instead of frequently resorting to verbal clashes or long-winded speeches.

The show’s somewhat clunky pacing is also worth mentioning, and while it’s difficult to say that Bly Manor would work better as a feature film like Hill House would, it’s still built on a somewhat uncertain foundation. A decent portion of the first half, while not without narrative necessity, frequently diverts from fully dedicating itself to key character moments, dragging them on slightly and dulling their potential impact.

In regards to these moments themselves, however, they’re incredibly powerful and, again, necessary to the story’s progression. For instance, Dani’s first encounter with her fiancée’s “ghost” serves as an utterly chilling personification of guilt, and the fates of Rebecca and Peter are revealed in a cleverly devised sequence of betrayal and deceit. It’s just that the story might feel like it invests a bit too much time into building up these moments, barely toeing the line between ‘just right’ and ‘just a little redundant.’

Despite this, Bly Manor pays off most of what it establishes. The final three episodes make sure to tie together the many plot threads, deliver one last sucker punch, and end on a relatively conclusive and melancholic note. If there’s one thing the series manages to accomplish, it’s finding a conclusion that deftly balances and understands the heart behind the Henry James ghost stories it adapts. Despite their many differences and disparities, Bly Manor consciously unifies these narratives under the cogent idea of how love, in its many forms, can linger and haunt both in life and after death.

If The Haunting of Bly Manor‘s nominal improvements from its preceding season are any indication, then The Haunting anthology series is on the right track for incredible success. For Bly Manor specifically, it’s proof that The Turn of the Screw hasn’t yet been exhausted of its adaptational possibilities, and that it has more in common with Henry James’s other works than one might expect. It knows that love, too, can be an immortal ghost of its own; a force that can outlive memory, trauma, and death itself.

USA | 2020 | 494 MINUTES 9 EPISODES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writers: Mike Flanagan, Diane Ademu-John, Laurie Penny, Angela LaManna, Rebecca Leigh Klingel, The Clarkson Twins, Leah Fong & Julia Bicknell.
directors: Mike Flanagan, Ciarán Foy, Liam Gavin, Yolanda Ramke & Ben Howling, Axelle Carolyn & E.L Katz.
starring: Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Amelia Eve, T’Nia Miller, Rahul Koli, Tahirah Sharif, Amelia Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Henry Thomas & Carla Gugino.