THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR. As I looked up the offerings for this week, I knew The Trial of the Chicago Seven, the Aaron Sorkin drama about the courtroom aftermath of the protests at the1969 Democratic convention, would be the movie of the moment. The New York Times even published a historical explainer as a kind of viewing guide. But trapped in its political echoes as we are — amid protests and escalating police and National Guard response, on the cusp of an election that spotlights racism and other cultural divisions — reader, I recoiled. Please watch what is surely an important film and tell me how it is because for all my curiosity, I know right this second I am one righteous Sorkin Speech™ away from finally and completely losing my damn mind.
Instead I retreated to The Haunting of Bly Manor, the second installment of Mike Flanagan's haunted house series for Netflix (following in the creaking footsteps of the excellent The Haunting of Hill House) and found myself caught in another kind of echo altogether. Based on the oft-adapted 1898 Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, the nine-part ghost story melds a handful of plots and themes from the author's other supernatural stories, too, "Sir Edmund Orme" and "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes" among them. (Screen Rant has a full cataloguing for those looking for seasonal reading material to keep the mood going.) A handful of Hill House cast members return in new roles and, like that first mini-series, it's beautifully shot, engrossing horror that sustains interest and suspense, playing with the timeline and achieving more with atmosphere than high-tech effects. And like the reverberating traumas upon which Hill House is built, the heavy stone foundation of Bly Manor is heartbreak and our terror of losing ourselves.
Like James' novella, we start with a gathering, this time a wedding rehearsal dinner, where the guests gather around a fire and listen to a ghost story from a guest (Carla Gugino). In that story, set in 1987, plucky young American Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) pushes past a bad interview in London and nabs a job as au pair for the orphaned nephew and niece, 10 and 8, of Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas). Replacing the previous au pair — recently deceased — she's to home school and care for the eerily well-spoken Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) at the family's country estate, the sprawling Bly Manor, with its storied portraits, double staircase, misty lake and forbidden wing. (As a wise woman once said, "You in danger, girl.") But some of Dani's pluck is forced, masking fear of her own ghost — one that sends her speed walking out of rooms when she catches sight of a glowing-eyed figure staring her down silently in reflections. Showing up at Bly with a spirit stalker, though, is bringing coals to Newcastle.
At the property, she meets the elegant and kind Mrs. Grose (T'Nia Miller), whose composure is only occasionally broken by episodes of spacing out, and the cook Owen (Rahul Kohli), a chef cheerfully slumming it cooking for kids while he cares for his mother, who suffers from severe dementia. The wry, lightly cynical gardener (Amelia Eve) rounds out the roster of the living. All are concerned with the increasingly odd behavior of the children, with Miles growing angry and disturbingly violent, and Flora falling into trances. The pair are keeping secrets about the house, as well, and something is definitely up with Flora's twig figures and faceless dolls. Outside the house, the appearance of former valet and vanished thief Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) also puts the staff on edge. The theory is that, unaware that she's dead, he may be sniffing around after the late au pair Rebecca (Tahirah Sharif), with whom he had an affair but abandoned.
While there are sections where the pacing lags, the cast — bravely decked out in period correct '80s atrocities — is uniformly excellent and pulls one along. Flanagan was clearly born to shoot creepy mansions and, as Hill House demonstrated, has harnessed the power of the shadowy figure in the background to its greatest effect. Unlike The Turn of the Screw and the 1961 adaptation The Innocents, which I love, there's comparatively little ambiguity beyond the practical metaphysics of the haunting. Instead, trippy time jumps give us insights into the living and the dead, sometimes transitioning us from fearing them to fearing for them. Everyone at Bly is trapped by guilt or obsession or sheer habit, repeating a cycle of grief, violence and thwarted happiness. It's not so much death that's to be feared as the slow wearing away of memories, leaving only, as the narrator tells us, need and rage. TVMA. NETFLIX.
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