Shaun Munro reviews The Haunting of Bly Manor…
Filmmaker Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep) set a perilously high bar for himself with 2018’s masterful Netflix Original series The Haunting of Hill House, which used its 10 episodes to tell a daring, emotionally rich reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name.
Flanagan returns now with The Haunting of Bly Manor, a richly absorbing follow-up that gets impressively close to matching that knockout prior volume, while delivering something most unexpected – a rare horror to truly make your heart soar.
This season is focused instead on the works of American author Henry James, particularly his 1898 horror novella The Turn of the Screw. But in a canny twist, Flanagan not only takes several sharp left turns away from James’ original story, but boldly remixes it with some of James’ most well-regarded stories, the specific names of which would be unforgivable spoilers.
Season two takes place in 1980s England, with Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) hiring a young American nanny, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti), to care for his orphaned niece and nephew, Flora and Miles (Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), at the luxurious Bly Manor. As Dani gets to know the children as well as the estate’s chef Owen (Rahul Kohli), groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve), and housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T’Nia Miller), it becomes clear that all is not as it seems.
The Haunting of Bly Manor is certainly going to surprise a lot of people, because while the prior season was anything but a traditional horror serial, this time Flanagan and his team of filmmakers have muddied the genre waters even further. Though much of its thematic focus certainly lies with familiar concepts such as death and grief, expecting a spooky ghost yarn belies the fact this is actually a love story at its core, the particulars of which are absolutely best left un-spoiled.
With its shift towards gothic romance, season two nevertheless retains the aching humanity and unforgettable melancholy of its predecessor, a tone and mood that’s so often lost or ignored in works of the genre. But as Flanagan has proven so often throughout his career, he is as interested in the human soul as he is things that go bump in the night.
Furthermore, he doubles down on the slippery, dreamlike logic of the prior season, in means that are ambitious, unexpected, and only occasionally confusing. Dreams, memory, and consciousness become a metaphysical soup within which Flanagan explores universal themes of love, loss, and letting go.
It’d certainly be easy for the story, which fleets between timelines and even planes of consciousness, to be rendered gorgeously incoherent, yet it’s tethered at all times to its characters first and foremost, such that audiences might forgive when it occasionally gets too close to being a pure mindfuck for its own good.
Like Hill House, Bly Manor is an unapologetic slow-burn, yet one which absolutely earns this luxury. And at the same time, there isn’t an ounce of fat on its bones, with the shortened nine-episode order allowing the season to divide into three neat acts. Above all else, there’s never the feeling that Flanagan and co. aren’t doing anything but telling this story in exactly the way they want to.
Despite every single episode being written by someone different, there’s a shocking core consistency to the storytelling, which generally avoids excess exposition even as it indulges, welcomely, in lush, poetic monologues about death, decay, and what it means to be alive. And that’s what the show really is at its core – no matter the deaths that occur, it’s a paean to life and a celebration of the sheer fluke that we even exist at all.
This life-affirming through-line is bolstered by the mesmerising efforts of an outstanding ensemble cast. Several prior cast members return this season in entirely new roles, most notably Victoria Pedretti delivering another terrific performance as protagonist Dani, while Henry Thomas dons a plummy English accent to play Flora and Miles’ uncle Henry, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen is back with an impressively persuasive Scottish twang as Henry’s assistant Peter Quint. There are also surprises in store, though ones we’re understandably embargoed from discussing.
But much of Bly Manor‘s richness comes from its new names and faces, especially a standout turn from T’Nia Miller as the composed-yet-tortured housekeeper Mrs. Grose. Her chemistry opposite the effortlessly likeable Rahul Kohli makes Mrs. Grose and Owen’s romantic pairing easily the most emotionally compelling of the central match-ups. That’s not to forget the fine contributions of Amelia Eve as cocksure groundskeeper Jamie nor Tahirah Sharif as the manor’s former nanny, Rebecca Jessel.
Flanagan has meanwhile proven himself a frequent dab hand at getting the best out of child actors, and in Amelie Bea Smith and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth he has found a remarkable pair of young performers to play Flora and Miles, two children who seem slightly off from the very moment we meet them.
While there’s sure to be some disappointment that Flanagan only directed a single episode this season – after directing all 10 episodes of Hill House – he has nevertheless shrewdly selected his team of filmmakers to carry the load, such that there’s an impressive stylistic consistency between episodes. The directors for season two are Ciaran Foy (Sinister 2), Liam Gavin (A Dark Song), Yolanda Ramke & Ben Howling (Cargo), Axelle Carolyn (Soulmate), and E.L. Katz (Cheap Thrills).
Even without Flanagan behind the camera 90% of the time, this is an exquisite example of modern horror filmmaking craft, a ravishing marriage of eye-wateringly beautiful cinematography – which bears Flanagan’s signature soft focus that’s practically a brand unto itself at this point – lived-in production design, and crisp editing. Bar a few wonky CGI moments – namely the unintentionally goofy sight of a glasses-clad figure who haunts Dani – it is a visual feast to soak in per Netflix’s 4K HDR presentation.
Though anyone expecting Flanagan to try and top the showy technical virtuosity of last season’s 17-minute single-take sequence should know that no such tricksiness abounds this time. Given how little benefit there is in the directors trying to compete with such a staggering prior accomplishment, though, it’s probably for the best.
Beyond the aesthetics, Bly Manor is also a wondrous sonic experience, with Flanagan’s regular collaborators The Newton Brothers returning to deliver a deeply stirring musical score. This is accentuated by generally glorious sound design, concerned more with faint creaks and empty air around the manor grounds as opposed to cheap, jolting jump scares.
If the previous season didn’t quite manage to maintain satisfaction through to its mildly divisive ending, fans will be relived to know that Bly Manor’s denouement is nothing short of a jaw-dropping high for the series. Without giving anything away, it culminates in an emotional wallop of a season finale which crystallises the show’s themes with an impactful, haunting beauty, such that many will be sure to shed tears – this critic certainly did.
Mike Flanagan continues to prove himself a modern horror master with this sumptuous, heartbreaking, and frequently surprising gothic romance.
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter.