Perfectly Splendid: ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

Blame it on the streaming effect, but when you don’t have to consciously choose whether or not you want to watch another episode of a TV show it can be very easy to lose track of where you are. The next episode starts automatically and then you don’t remember what happened when. All of the episodes blur together.

Big deal? Maybe not, though it is probably why some series have taken to calling themselves X-hour movies, a phrase that implies movies are superior to TV shows and that being a TV show is something to hide.

The reason for this rant in reference to Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, is because it’s a series that embraces being a television show and lets each episode have its own identity. There’s no confusing one episode for another, yet they all propel the plot forward, and while Flanagan used a similar format for his TV show, The Haunting of Hill House, where many of the episodes focused on a particular member of the Crain family, there was still more overlap there, as the same scene would be shown from different perspectives.

The family of Bly Manor is a chosen family. Based on Henry JamesThe Turn of the Screw (which has been adapted many times before, mostly famously by Jack Clayton for his film, The Innocents), Flanagan moves the action to the ’80s, where Dani (Victoria Pedretti) – in search of an escape from her old life – applies for a job as a live-in governess.

Her charges – 10-year-old Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and 8-year-old Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) – recently lost their parents (Alex Essoe and Matthew Holness) and their uncle (Henry Thomas) needs someone to take care of them. Their previous governess, Miss Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), died, and while the housekeeper, Hanna Grose (TNia Miller), has been filling in (with the help of Rahul Kohli’s cook and Amelia Eve’s gardener) they need someone who can watch the children fulltime.

In a way, Bly Manor sows its own downfall because after doing such a good job of establishing these unlikely friends, where instead of being made to feel unwelcome, as would be the case in a lot of horror stories (where the staff would be creepy or aloof), Dani is accepted and supported, it’s hard to get as excited when the show tries to go back and fill-in some of the other character’s backstories. Miss. Jessel and Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are important characters in The Turning of the Screw universe, but the question is whether you’re willing to spend whole episodes with them at the expense of spending time with Bly Manor’s current residents.

Episode five is very much a turning point for the series (as was the case with Hill House, too), both structurally and in providing TNia Miller with the most incredible actor’s showcase. Her delivery of certain lines is so fresh and present. The second half of the season falls short by comparison. Episode six focuses on the uncle who hasn’t been around. Episode seven repeats the same structure used in episode five but with Peter and Miss. Jessel, and episode eight is a black and white, standalone episode about one of the ghosts at Bly Manor. The idea of all of these episodes is that no one’s entirely evil. People are complicated, but sometimes the show’s drive to redeem everyone feels generous.

There’s also a point with Flanagan’s shows where he can hit such a raw nerve that it can be hard to keep watching. That means the series is doing something right, but it’s still upsetting.

If there’s one character the series drops the ball with it’s Miles, whose devotion to his sister leaves such an impression in episode two, but then his fate becomes an afterthought compared to Flora’s.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray comes with three audio commentaries. Flanagan takes the first episode and if you’re bad at spotting ghosts, you’ll definitely become more aware of the plague doctor’s presence. Of all the commentaries his might be the one to wait to listen to until after you’ve seen the whole series, but it was neat, learning about how Oliver Jackson-Cohen worked with Benjamin Evan Ainsworth on the scenes where Miles is possessed, and to hear about the nods Flanagan made to The Innocents and Henry James’ frame narrative. Also, fun fact: Bly Manor doesn’t exist. All of the exterior shots of the building are digital.

Director, Liam Gavin, talks about episode five and figuring out the transitions, while director, Axelle Carolyn, talks about episode eight. There are also two bonus featurettes featuring Flanagan. In one he talks about how they came up with their design for the ghosts and the other is a more general discussion of the series.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Paramount Pictures.

%d bloggers like this: