If Bly Manor rings a dim bell for ghost story aficionados, it’s because Bly is the name of the house in Henry James’s chilling novella of the supernatural, The Turn of the Screw. A naive governess is tasked with guarding two children, Miles and Flora, after the disturbing death of her predecessor. The woman comes to believe demonic entities imperil the pair; but she may be the greater threat. A companion piece to the recent The Haunting of Hill House, in which Mike Flanagan adapted and updated Shirley Jackson’s horror novel of the same name, Flanagan’s Netflix series faces stiff competition from other celebrated adaptations, including the 1961 film The Innocents and an opera by Benjamin Britten.
Inevitably with nine episodes, of which Henry James is credited with only three, the original is stretched and elaborated. Should you wonder why Miles has been sent home from school (expulsion would be far too explicit for James), Flanagan provides a florid explanation. In his subtle text James was concerned to keep all interpretations in play, including the most literal: the supernatural is real. Subjective camera work can show us what the governess thinks she sees, but if we observe something when her back is turned, the effect is less ambiguous. Perhaps we, as watchers, are also haunting the house. Now there’s a creepy thought.
Flanagan sets the action in the early 1980s, and updates the dowdy governess to a nervy American au pair, Dani Clayton (Victoria Pedretti). She’s not the brightest pedagogue — making a pot of British tea is quite beyond her — but the children’s absentee guardian isn’t fussy about the details. Bly is well staffed by 20th-century if not Victorian standards: Owen, a burly, bearlike cook, and Jamie the truculent gardener (Amelia Eve) work under housekeeper Mrs Grose, in T’nia Miller’s hands a sexier presence than previous iterations, and much more than the governess’s gullible stooge.
The recurring motif of the dolls’ house invokes such masters of the weird story genre as Robert Aickman and MR James. Oliver Jackson-Cohen is suavely sinister as the manipulative valet Peter Quint, “Tainted Love” on the soundtrack forming both a time-marker and a comment on the character’s emotional make-up. Dani’s predecessor Miss Jessell (Tahirah Sharif) is given both a suggestive first name — Rebecca — and overmuch back-story; a SOAS graduate who wants to be a barrister. Dani has brought her own ghost to the ménage, a figure with headlamps for eyes who appears in mirrors. Pedretti stumbles around attractively enough, a Bambi with big hair and high-waisted jeans. The children are marvellous: Amelie Bea Smith as Flora, a sweet little girl who occasionally looks as though she’s plugged into other realities, and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth as the weirdly compelling Miles.
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