The Haunting of Bly Manor

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Victoria Pedretti in The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Victoria Pedretti in The Haunting of Bly Manor.
Photo: Eike Schroter/Netflix

SHOW:

The Haunting of Bly Manor

WHERE TO WATCH:

Netflix

OUR RATING

4/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

A young American woman Dani Clayton is hired as an au pair for two orphaned children living in the stately Bly Manor in the English countryside. Haunted by the memories of the children's dead parents, their recently deceased previous au pair and her own loss, Dani soon comes to realise that something is very wrong at Bly Manor. It is based on the Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

As the follow up to Mike Flanagan's exceptional adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor always had its work cut out for it. With the same creator (though Flanagan takes a step back and only writes and directs the first episode but remains as showrunner), many of the same actors, many of the same musical motifs and literally being called the second instalment in the "Haunting" anthology series, comparisons with its wildly acclaimed predecessor are unavoidable. Which is a pity because it fares far, far better when viewed on its own terms.

I've made no bones about the Haunting of Hill House being my favourite (non-comedy) season of TV in many a year and probably my favourite horror anything of all time. It was, therefore, with a lot of excitement and trepidation that I approached its follow up. My trepidation was not without merit, as it turns out. The Haunting of Bly Manor is still a frequently brilliant (though sometimes very flawed) season of TV, but it doesn't come within 100 miles of the brilliance of Hill House. It absolutely earns the four-star rating I'm giving it, but the space between the four stars of Bly Manor and the five stars of Hill House is immense. But then, the space between the five stars of Hill House and the four stars of nearly anything else is no smaller.

To get the qualitative differences between the two shows out of the way, then, I thought the characters in Hill House were more memorable, and it was generally a lot scarier, better paced and far more cohesive in its storytelling. That it was all directed and largely written by Flanagan is no doubt a large part of why Hill House worked better than Bly Manor, ultimately, but it also avoided some of the bigger pitfalls that plague Bly Manor.

Regardless of whether you compare it to The Haunting of Hill House, the second Haunting series suffers from two particular problems – one major, one less so.

First, some of the accents are just terrible. In particular, the returning players from Hill House are all stuck using accents different from their own, and none of them quite nail it. And considering how great they are otherwise, the often frankly bizarre decision to burden them with accents they can't quite pull off becomes super noticeable even to those of us who aren't from the United Kingdom or the United States.

Carla Gugino, who narrates the entire series, doesn't do a particularly great job with a North English accent, but poor Henry Thomas really, really mangles a posh London accent. Oliver Jackson-Cohen, meanwhile, is actually English so why they got him to put on a decent but not-quite-there Scottish accent is anyone's guess. Most befuddling, the show's star, Victoria Pedretti, seems to be going for a slightly different but slightly "off" American accent to her own – maybe a bit Southern accent? – and I can't for the life of me figure out why. Only Kate Siegel, in a small but crucial role, just about gets away with her English accent by not speaking very much.

And, again, if you've seen these actors in the Haunting of Hill House – or just about anything else – I don't have to tell you how great they are and that they're otherwise wonderful here. But the accents... just... no!

The bigger problem with the show, though, is that the pacing becomes a real issue at times. Hill House was no less, shall we say, deliberately paced but it always felt like it used every moment to maximum effect – whether building tension or breaking your heart. Here, though, there are times when you wish it would just get a bit of a move on as the tension building starts to turn into tension evaporation.

The origin story of the second last episode, in particular, has many things about it that are genius but it kills all momentum that the season had been building, while being very slow and repetitive – though, yes, undoubtedly intentionally so. The many sub-plots and far larger cast than Hill House also go some way to throwing the pacing off with almost every episode feeling just five or ten minutes too long.

Also, and I suppose this is the third big issue, The Haunting of Bly Manor loses some of its mystique by sometimes over-explaining what's happening and spending too long on the mechanics of the haunting. Perhaps that's because it's more of a mystery this time around.

Fortunately, flaws or not, there's still much to love here – even in comparison to Hill House. Like Hill House, for a start, the beauty of the show is that Flanagan isn't so much interested in ghosts as just ghosts, but as metaphors for the deepest human emotions. Once again, themes of loss, memory and grief are front and centre, but if The Haunting of Hill House is about family trauma, then The Haunting of Bly Manor is about love, in particular the different kinds of love and the way each of these can haunt you.

Indeed, though it's unquestionably a ghost story (and, once again, there are plenty of background ghosts for you to spot). Bly Manor hasn't been described as a horror story so much as a Gothic romance. And, as a supernatural mystery, set in an old English manor, with plenty of atmosphere and romance that destroys as much as it connects, it very much fits the bill. Hill House had few jump scares but there are even less here, and while the atmosphere of Hill House was all about what lurks in the blue-black shadows, Bly House, with its bleached-yellow colour pallet and persistent dense fogs create something much more claustrophobic – especially as very little screen time, bar for two episodes, is devoted to the world outside Bly Manor.

It's impossible to talk about the different manifestations of love in Bly Manor without giving away huge spoilers, but I can say that as a love story (of one kind, at the very least) it is extremely moving, and as an examination of love and its intersection with memory, it's absolutely beautifully observed. As a sometimes tragedy, it is undeniably tragic and a (slightly too slow) atmospheric mystery, it is both mysterious and atmospheric. Sure, it might not be as successful as Hill House, but it still does a great job with what it set out to achieve.

Its characters too – though, again, not as well developed as the Crane family – are still fully drawn and sympathetic and portrayed by a killer cast who bring humanity to even the least likeable characters and tons of warmth and easy humour to the most likeable. The actors who have come over from Hill House are still – accents aside – excellent, with Oliver-Jackson Cohen and Victoria Pedretti wowing once again but in seriously different roles from Luke and Nelly Crane. The new additions are no less great, but special mention has to go to Amelie Bea Smith and, most especially, to Benjamin Evan Ainsworth as the often unnerving orphans of Bly Manor, Flora and Miles. They're all "perfectly splendid."

As one final comparison to Hill House, the Haunting of Bly Manor has a divisive ending once again but I, for one, thought it was exceptional. I liked the finale of Hill House too, I admit, but it was one of the weaker episodes of the series. Not so here. It is, once again, not really a horror ending but this being a gothic romance, its achingly, beautifully romantic ending (though not necessarily – or necessarily not – happy) is enough to all but excuse any misgivings I have about the rest of the show.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:


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