The power of The Haunting of Bly Manor — the new Netflix series created by Mike Flanagan based on the work of Henry James — rests almost entirely on the face and physicality of Victoria Pedretti.
Where its predecessor The Haunting of Hill House coiled around a single metaphor of grief, Flanagan’s newest venture — which he doesn’t wholly direct and write, as he did with Hill House — is powered by the raw-nerved nature of guilt. Dani Clayton (Pedretti) is a haunted woman. But that isn’t how she first appears to be when she’s introduced in 1987. At first blush, Dani is a warm, kind, young American woman navigating her way through London, just trying to help others by applying to be the au pair of two orphaned children, Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Flora (Amelie Bea Smith). Her initial interview with their uncle Henry (Henry Thomas) is exceedingly awkward. But when Dani sees him at a bar practically pickling himself, as is his fashion, she’s able to convince him she’s someone who can make a difference in the lives of these children troubled by the loss of their parents and the strange happenings at the manor that is their second home.
Framed by a highly integral narrator based in 2007, far beyond the events of Bly Manor, the unease sets in quickly. Despite the bright beauty of the estate it is evident something is amiss. Is it the glimpses Dani sees of Peter Quint (a sharp Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a former valet and assistant to Henry who supposedly ran off with a considerable amount of money and the heart of someone whose history is bound to Bly Manor? Is it the delicate, handspun talismans Flora creates not just for the pleasure of imagination but out of a fear of what happens when she doesn’t? Is it the crack appearing on different walls before disappearing altogether? Is it the abandoned wing of the house that reeks of the grief and longing that dare not be spoken about?
At its best, Bly Manor is a worthwhile way to lose yourself in the folds of horror this fall. Its nine episodes move swiftly, carried by a darkened mood and assured handling of tone. The characterization is as sharp as a pinprick, and the acting is especially strong, albeit with a few caveats. In moments, the show proves genuinely unnerving, using its expansive emotional intelligence to ground its horror. But only in moments. Unfortunately, Bly Manor lacks the precision and ingenuity of its predecessor. It’s most satisfying when it carves its own path separate from The Turn of the Screw and the other works of Henry James that influence the story, using them as inspiration rather than hitting the same beats. But Bly Manor is ultimately a frustrating excursion because it’s so evident when it comes close to greatness and then falls short due to sloppy plotting, an unwillingness to push horror beyond its confines, a tepid approach to class tensions within the manor, and stale jokes. Seriously, how often do you need to make jokes about Americans not being able to make tea?
One of the most fascinating diversions Bly Manor makes from the text is the most essential. In both James’s original work and the powerful 1961 adaptation The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr (which Bly Manor can’t even hope to compare to), the essential tension is this: is the au pair imagining the ghosts or are they real? Bly Manor disregards that question almost immediately by making it highly apparent within the first two episodes that yes, these ghosts are indeed real, draining the story of its guiding tension. This need not be a devastating problem if Flanagan and his collaborators had found another way to weave tension into the story. But this ability proves inconsistent, and so Bly Manor only works part of the time as a ghost story.
In Bly Manor, the ghosts have unformed faces missing eyes and definition, as if they are the clay-like beginnings of an artist’s rendering. This induces the chill of the uncanny into the visual dimensions of the story, but its explanation also proves fascinating: as time goes on, the memories of ghosts, and by extension their identities, are eroded, which is reflected in their warped visages. The most fascinating ghost is the one Dani carries with her. Seen alongside her reflection — in taxi windows, in bathroom mirrors — is the silhouette of a man, awash in a fiery light. Bly Manor prefers unease over jump scares (although there are a few of those), and this ghost strikes the right balance. As an extension of Dani, this ghost in particular elegantly threads together Bly Manor’s ideas about guilt, grief, and the wounds that do not heal, and spotlights the series’ commitment to strong characterization, which it mostly manages to maintain despite the bouts of sloppy writing.
There are admittedly a few points where Bly Manor falters in this regard, particularly when it comes to the writing of Peter Quint, who alternates between outright villain and a more tragic figure without either being wholly effective. Mike Flanagan staple Henry Thomas is given more than he can handle as Uncle Henry, a barely functional alcoholic entombing himself in work out of guilt. The limits of his skills are most readily apparent when he is faced by his own madly grinning doppelgänger, a horror figure I typically find unsettling but wasn’t moved by here.
What is just as readily apparent, however, is Pedretti’s considerable skill as Dani. Pedretti has proven herself to be one of the most exciting young actors to watch in works like the Amy Dunne riff in You season two and The Haunting of Hill House, in which she anchored the show’s most impressive episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady.” Here she grants Dani an almost bubbly veneer and inner brightness that is undercut by a deep well of sadness and guilt. Her facial elasticity allows her to blend a host of competing emotions on the planes of her face. Her physicality is guarded and her voice warbles, at times, with the reverberations of all she has lost and endured. Flora and Miles are played with the right mix of sweet and vaguely creepy, whilst not tipping over into the latter to a ridiculous degree. Rahul Kohli as Bly Manor’s cook, Owen, has the appropriate warmth and vigor.
Surprisingly, the best episode is one in which our leading au pair barely figures, instead anchored by T’Nia Miller, who plays the dedicated housekeeper Mrs. Hannah Grose. Hannah, like so many of the leading characters, is easy to love. She’s kind, whip smart, achingly sincere. But there are moments when her attention is diverted that speaks to something far more knotted lurking under the surface. In episode five, which centers on her own relationship to the ghosts of Bly Manor, the show’s potent ideas about our relationship to the past, longing, and guilt are most keenly felt. Miller does an excellent job peeling back the layers of her character with a full-bodied physicality that brims with grace. So much of what works in this series is because of the sort of heart and strong emotional beats seen in Hannah’s story. But without a precise handling of plotting and a more daring approach to horror, those more intriguing emotional beats falter and fade away. For all its heart, Bly Manor lacks the bravura necessary to work as the love story wrapped in a ghostly tale that it is aching to be.