In Netflix's Slow-Burning The Haunting of Bly Manor , the Real Ghost Is Inequality
Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and T'Nia Miller at The Haunting of Bly Manor
L-R: Amelie Bea Smith, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and T'Nia Miller in <em> The Haunting of Bly Manor </ em> Credit - Eike Schroter / Netflix
"I never really liked Bly," admits the chef to the au pair, who has just been hired by his employer, as he drives her through sun-drenched emerald green farmland to the estate where she will live and work. “The people here, most of them, they are born here, they die here. The whole city is a great source of gravity, and it's easy to get stuck.” This isn't what an auspicious introduction to the place that Dani Clayton selected to build a new life. But it wouldn't be a ghost story if it didn't start with an ignored warning.
The Haunting of Bly Manor isn't just a ghost story - and it's not just any ghost story either. Now streamed on Netflix, it's the highly anticipated sequel to 2018's surprising Halloween hit The Haunting of Hill House. Both series were created by the streaming service's horror maestro, Mike Flanagan (Hush, Gerald's game) and are inspired by classical literature. While Hill House turned Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel into a terrifying family drama, Bly Manor updated Henry James' fin-de-siècle Gothic The Turn of the Screw (as well as several other works by the American expat writer) until the 1980s. Rather than attempting to improve on the originals, Flanagan's thoughtful, if uneven retelling, laid them on the analyst's couch, patiently dismantling the characters and themes. In its sluggish first half, Bly Manor examines what drove Dani (Victoria Pedretti, one of many Hill House actors returning in a new role), the cook (Rahul Kohlis Owen), and the other residents of the property into this "source of gravity" has the English countryside. As the nine-episode season progresses, a better question arises: can they ever escape?
Framed (alluding to James) as yarn that was told during a rehearsal dinner for today's wedding, the story begins in 1987 in London. Dani, a young teacher from the US, blows her interview with Lord Henry Wingrave (Henry) Thomas of Hill House and Better Things), a lawyer, for a live-in position teaching his orphaned niece and nephew as well supervised. Dani later discovers Wingrave like von Kismet in a bar, speaks to him and learns that the children's last au pair has died of suicide. "I understand death," she emphasizes, suddenly overwhelmed by emotions. "I know what loss is." And just like that, the job is hers.
In the centuries-old Bly Manor she meets her adorable charges, 8-year-old Flora (Amelie Bea Smith) and 10-year-old Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). While both children have the impeccable manners of the mini-aristocrats that they are, Miles sometimes acts disturbingly adult for his age - demanding a glass of wine or touching Dani in an uncomfortably sensual way. He was recently released from boarding school for reasons no one voluntarily reports. Dani's new hires are friendly, although signs of disappointment and melancholy lurk beneath their friendly surfaces. Owen was trained as a chef in France when his mother fell ill. He took the job at Bly to be close to her. The gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve) is playful but reserved. A middle-aged royal woman very proud of her job, the housekeeper Mrs. Grose (T'Nia Miller of Years and Years, in an excellent, multilayered performance) seems to have no life outside of the estate.
Amelie Bea Smith (left) and Tahirah Sharif in "The Haunting of Bly Manor" Eike Schroter / Netflix
It's hard to tell at first whether the house is truly haunted or just streaked with death - assuming there is a difference. Horror tropes are there from the start: hanging up phone calls, creepy dolls in a doll's house resembling Bly, characters from afar who may or may not be living people. While Flanagan indulges in lengthy excavations of the background stories of several characters, a puzzle slowly - too slowly - merges with Dani's predecessor Rebecca Jessel (Tahirah Sharif from Netflix's A Christmas Prince trilogy). Beautiful, keen, and ambitious, she dreamed of becoming a lawyer, and hoped Lord Wingrave would help get her foot in the door. Then she fell in love with his right-wing husband, Peter Quint (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who played Pedretti's twin at Hill House), a crafty Irish nerd who seems to have impressed the children indelibly. (Fortunately for those of us suffering from the fatigue of Stranger Things, Yuppie Peter is the only character whose plot exploits nostalgia of the '80s.)
Hill House fans will recognize the diverse timelines and flashbacks that make the past as enigmatic as the present and the future. Also known is the sequel’s emphasis on character development, which can be hard to find in the horror genre, even if the pace doesn't feel right this time around. Nevertheless, the two seasons are almost mirror images of each other. While Hill House excelled in its early, grounded episodes before it ended up in chaos, Bly Manor doesn't really get going until the second half, which thrives on productive confusion despite some distracting soapy twists and turns. And it offers a more satisfying ending than season one, which not only coats sugar but also skews Jackson's narrative by reducing the death of two women to the collateral damage of a reconciliation between an utterly uncomfortable male character and his misunderstood father.
Bly Manor doesn't replicate the ending of The Turn of the Screw either. The plot is way too complicated and stretching for way too many years (including a stunning stand-alone episode set hundreds of years ago). Its animating tension, however, coincides with the original novel - a love story and a ghost story, as the contemporary narrator of the adaptation reminds us, but also an allegory for class anxiety. With the children's parents dead and Lord Wingrave vehemently opposed to any practical participation in their upbringing, Bly Manor confuses the rigid British class system. Miles and Flora, both too young to fend for themselves, are the only upstairs adult staff on the ground floor. So the dangerously free servants run the house. Is anyone actually responsible for this place? Or does it belong to these supposed ghosts?
Victoria Pedretti in "The Haunted Bly Manor" Eike Schroter / Netflix
Now, 122 years later, we realize that class isn't the only social hierarchy, and Flanagan is populating its updated Bly Manor with a greater variety of underdog identities. Owen's heritage is South Asian. Mrs. Grose is a black woman. Rebecca is biracial. Characters drawn from their experiences with lovers that society deems appropriate find room for various types of romance in this non-judgmental community. As a straight, white man in an American psychological suit, Peter comes closest to his distant, aristocratic employer, but his accent and lack of professional connections betray him as an intruder into Lord Wingrave's world - as "help". In his own opinion, he is "quite simply not part of the F-Ckin Club".
The mutual discomfort between the absent rich and the forgotten poor (or white from black, or straight from queer) is the beginning of the problem. And this aspect of the show is anything but a performatively lively version of a text from the 19th century from the 21st century. Flanagan is hardly the first to see James' novella as a metaphor for the harm caused by inequality. he only meditates on this subject. The book "reveals the cruel and destructive pressures of Victorian society with its restrictive code of sexual morality and its strong sense of class consciousness," wrote literary scholar Jane Nardin in 1978. "Because the adult characters in The Turn of the Screw are when they try to recreate Living a set of social and moral norms that deny or thwart some of the fundamental impulses of human nature will sour your good intentions and show clear signs of tension and mental deterioration. "
For the upper class, who usually don't abandon their children but rather outsource much of their care to servants, nannies, and boarding schools, the concern is about the kind of values these proles will instill in the next generation. For the working class, no matter how talented they are, how hard they try, or how popular they are with their supposed know-it-alls, they are trapped in the caste into which they were born. One could argue that similar fears are causing unrest in our current politically reactionary gold-plated age. And yet, now that the movement between stations and identities and places is more fluid, socially if not always economically, the chances of a successful escape look more promising than they used to be. In 2020, this is where the outstanding story lies. Bly Manor eventually becomes a compelling makeover - but not until Dani and her companions are taken to the exit.
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