London, 1987. Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) is an American teacher turned au pair. After answering a job advertisement, Dani moves into the infamous Bly Manor to care for the Wingrave children. Flora Wingrave (Amelie Bea Smith) is an upbeat and “perfectly splendid” child, while her brother, Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), is leery and secretive. Both children are hiding things—handmade dolls move around the house in the day and fresh muddy footprints line the halls each night.
As Dani starts to unravel the estate’s troubled past, the children’s strange outbursts and behaviours are revealed. But something else lurks within the halls of Bly Manor. Dani doesn’t know who or what it is—but she will soon.
Created by Mike Flanagan, the mind behind Doctor Sleep and Oculus, The Haunting of Bly Manor currently tops Netflix’s most popular watchlist in Canada. The show is based on the terrifying work of Henry James, including the classic novella, The Turn of the Screw. Fans of the novella will appreciate the framing narrative and the estate’s infamous lake.
While Flanagan peppers some horrific elements throughout the episodes, The Haunting of Bly Manor often feels like a scary soap opera. Dani offers us the nervous, confused, and shocked character we can relate to, but the soft lighting and three romantic plotlines make the show less horrific and more dramatic.
Like in James’ novella, Dani depicts the complexities of the human mind, confronting fear, panic, and the unfamiliar. Our hero knows exactly what she sees but is frequently gaslit by the children’s feigned ignorance and her own hauntings. She’s the show’s moral compass and sacrificial lamb.
Jamie (Amelia Eve), the gardener, offers Dani a shoulder to cry on, while Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), the housekeeper, performs her tasks with dignity and stamina, leaving the novella’s gullible Grose in the dust. All the while, Owen (Rahul Kohli), the silly, charming cook, comforts everyone in the manor, even in their darkest moments.
For the first few episodes, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Miss Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif), the previous au pair, are elusive. Peter’s a hotshot lawyer, with good looks and sharp suits concealing his harrowing childhood, while Rebecca’s smart and pursuing a law career. Both are transient in this world. We aren’t sure whether they’re evading arrest from stealing Wingrave money or if they’re even truly there.
As the story unfolds, we see Bly Manor as a refuge for its many inhabitants. Miss Jessel joins Bly Manor to gain pupilage with its owner, Henry Wingrave. Peter stays for comfort and romance with Miss Jessel. Hannah Grose flees to the Manor with nowhere else to go to, while Dani seeks to escape her guilt and the ghost that haunts her life in America.
Meanwhile, Miles and Flora offer complex perspectives on the relationship between the living and the dead through their foreboding singing, strange games, and shifting personalities.
The show minimizes the novella’s themes of obsession and mental deterioration, while the romances dilute many of its frightening moments. Instead of feeling increasingly isolated with Dani, we become more connected with other characters such as Jamie, who gives Dani constant attention and respect. Unfortunately, despite the ghouls and the characters’ fascination with their presence, The Haunting of Bly Manor has the stereotypical drama you’d expect from Days of Our Lives and The Vampire Diaries.
As the grown-up Flora says in the show, this is a “love story.” Not so nightmarish.
The Haunting of Bly Manor offers picturesque views of the English countryside and lighter scenes along the characters’ journeys. While it may be unnecessarily romantic and warm for the horror genre, the isolated spooks will have you questioning the sanity and existence of each character.