What’s going on in the TV racket in Britain? Mischief, I tell you. Utter mischief.
Not long ago I recommended a miniseries, The Sister (on Crave). It was just a shade shy of bonkers, I informed long-suffering readers. Well, it was. Now there’s another one that is even better in its good qualities and then a sandwich short of a picnic, you might say. The novel on which it is based became notorious – and not in a good way – for the liberties taken with the reader’s expectations.
In fairness, not everybody has been furious with the work, both the book and the TV adaptation. Some readers called the book “brave” and one reviewer wrote of this adaptation, “It requires a thorough suspension of disbelief at an entirely different register than what this genre normally requires.” So, you know, don’t run away, and be afraid of it.
Behind Her Eyes (now streaming on Netflix) is the miniseries in question. In its favour it is beautifully made, tonally distinct and exceptionally well-acted. It is gripping and slightly sinister from almost the start and fuelled by an off-kilter erotic charge that only begins to make sense in the context of that strange ending.
At first it has the hallmarks of what was once called the adultery-in-Hampstead novel. (The work of authors such as Margaret Drabble and Penelope Lively fall into the category.) In contemporary London, single mother Louise (Simona Brown), who is Black, bumps into a stranger at a bar. He’s David (Tom Bateman), they have a nice conversation, share a fleeting kiss and they part. Next day, Louise discovers David is her new boss. He’s a psychiatrist and she’s a secretary at his office. They agree to put aside that previous meeting, but there’s something unsettling about David, and Louise feels oddly protective of him.
Then Louise meets David’s wife Adele (Eve Hewson), a striking woman whose gaze is mysterious and whose cool embrace of middle-class luxury seems deeply controlled but maddeningly distant. Adele anchors the drama, and the camera lingers long on Hewson’s face, body and eyes with an unsettling intensity. You begin to think Adele is a sinister figure when her past in a psychiatric hospital is revealed in flashbacks and we see her flirty friendship with the gay, heroin-addicted fellow patient Rob (Robert Aramayo).
There is a layer of spookiness, too, in the matter of the sleepwalking and night terrors that both Louise and Adele seem to share as an affliction. David, being a psychiatrist, dispenses medications, but you wonder what are they for, exactly? Are the drugs what make Adele so calmly poised, chic and radiating an unnervingly lubricious charm? What has Louise got herself into, working for this man to whom she’s attracted, and being friends with his apparently moony-but-sinister wife?
The original novel by Sarah Pinborough was compared with Big Little Lies as a mystery rich with insight into female friendship and drenched in a sense of dread abut hidden secrets. The miniseries is certainly not at the level of HBO’s Big Little Lies; it is more small-scale and then there’s that shocking twist that takes the story to a place few viewers can anticipate. (There’s a clue during a sex scene in Episode 2, by the way.) And yes, some viewers will find the twist so outlandish as to be scornful.
But strange, shocking twist or not, Behind Her Eyes will satisfy some viewers as a kind of moonstruck binge-watch. It has a sumptuous look made consistent by director Erik Richter Strand, who handles all six episodes and mainly works in Scandinavian noir. Writer and showrunner Steve Lightfoot, who wrote most of it, previously worked on Hannibal, which also had a disquieting look and tone. Irish actress Hewson is magical as the imperious Adele; the actor has a fine body of work at this point, excellent in The Knick and the movie Bridge of Spies. You don’t read much about her as an up-and-coming actor, perhaps because she avoids her personal background – she’s the daughter of Paul Hewson, better known as Bono of U2, and his wife, Ali.
You have been forewarned about the ending, and you can decide if it is mischief, or bravery. Don’t come complaining to me about it being daft as a brush and not half as useful.
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