Mike Flanagan’s retelling of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw in new series for Netflix, The Haunting of Bly Manor, adds more depth to the characters as a tragic story of love unfolds.
“It’s me. It’s you. It’s us.” These words connect the characters and themes of the Bly Manor across time and space. We meet Danielle (Victoria Pedretti) in London 1987, being interviewed for the position of a full-time au pair (governess) for bereaved siblings Flora(Amelie Bea Smith) and Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), who live in a beautiful country manor. But there is a twist, as Dani soon discovers. The children are not only dealing with the immense grief of their parents loss but also the suicide of their previous governess Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif).
The children are “perfectly splendid” and welcoming. Flora is curiously cheerful and Miles eerily sophisticated. The other members of the staff at the Manor — cook Owen (Rahul Kohli), housekeeper Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller) and groundskeeper Jamie (Amelia Eve) — are as welcoming as anyone could expect. Nothing is amiss at first glance. Except for the creepy faceless doll in Flora’s bedroom; and Dani’s past that she carries with her, a reflection of a dark shadow with hollow white eyes. As the story progresses, we see how each character is dealing with loss. Each one of them haunted with guilt, trying to move on and failing.
Perhaps the most destructive of all is the story of sisters Viola (Kate Siegel) and Perdita (Katie Parker) in the 17th century whose tale of love and jealousy have cast an eternal curse on the Bly Manor. The curse of never moving on. The horrors of Bly Manor, as is revealed, are not shadows lurking in hallways but a much more sinister fear of fading away into oblivion. Without love. If one looks closely, we see that the Haunting of Bly Manor wants us to be bold and vulnerable in love. It puts the characters through a range of emotions that mixes melancholy with foreboding, keeping the viewers entangled with human frailties rather than the ghosts.
The show uses a narrator’s voice, to help create distance from the goings on at Bly Manor. She begins to tell a ghost story to a group of guests at a wedding in California in 2007. It’s only at the end of the season that it becomes clear what her voice represents; but, as a narrative device, she explains away motivations that might otherwise have added depth to the darkness. The writers ultimately win not in the portrayal of dark corners and scary dolls but the feeling of love the story generates. The warmth the characters create with their love makes the loss that much more painful, of loss not only in death but also in memory.
“We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow. But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree. Singing, oh willow waly, till my lover return to me.” These words are maybe the best way to express the loneliness the show captures and, that is the real horror many of us experience. In the end, Bly Manor is much more about the horror of accepting loss in real life; of accepting the truth that awaits us all in death. It reminds us that while death awaits, the solace of companionship is what we can look for so that they can remember us when we are gone.