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There’s a delicate line that so much of the best gothic and neo-gothic fiction walks, one where the supernatural seems just around every corner, as literal or metaphorical as you want it to be. There are interpretations of Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre that bring in all manner of unexplainable phenomena, not that any of that is there in literal readings. And there are interpretations of The Turn of the Screw or most of Edgar Allan Poe’s work where everything that seems paranormal is just a metaphor writ large.
A little flexibility in literary analysis is often a good thing, because there’s always a risk that if you take something intriguing and over-explain it, you can go from tantalizing to plain old ridiculous in an instant.
AIR DATE Feb 17, 2021
Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor, itself an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, never quite descended into ridiculousness. But it was a show that, for me, worked best in a place of spooky insinuation and became less interesting the more it spelled out exactly what was happening.
The new six-part Netflix miniseries Behind Her Eyes, much more modern and yet still awash in gothic trappings, is closer to a worst-case scenario. For two episodes I found the series, based on the novel by Sarah Pinborough, to be oddly generic. Then for two episodes, I began to be respectfully curious about its unspecified mysteriousness. The last two episodes, all cumbersome justification for what came before, went from dumb to laughably silly.
Adapted for the small screen by Steve Lightfoot and directed by Erik Richter Strand — yes, it’s 2021 and we’re still getting novels by women, about women, with the female gaze explicitly in the title that are translated primarily by men — Behind Her Eyes starts off as a garden variety tale of erotic obsession. After Louise (Simona Brown) and David (Tom Bateman) have a romantic meet-cute at a London bar, Louise goes to her job as a receptionist at a psychiatrists’ office and discovers that David is her new boss! Yes, it’s the introductory premise of Grey’s Anatomy as well!
David, it turns out, is married and this becomes important when David’s wife Adele (Eve Hewson) and Louise have an accidental platonic meet-cute of their own. Almost immediately, Louise is engaged in very different liaisons with both David and Adele, though neither husband nor wife knows that the other is involved with Louise.
Very quickly, Louise begins wondering about the nature of David and Adele’s marriage, which makes sense since David is broody and irritable and is trying to keep Adele a prisoner of sorts in their posh home. He’s also trying to keep Adele sedated and referring to any number of horrifying secrets, which may or may not relate to the fire that devoured her estate in the country (shades of Jane Eyre), her time at an asylum of sorts and the type of dilapidated well in the forest where nothing good has ever happened (shades of Haunting of Bly Manor). It’s all tied together by the fact that Louise suffers from night terrors, and graphically realized nightmares, a condition with which Adele is familiar.
In a different storytelling era, Behind Her Eyes surely would have been a two-hour feature film. I’m thinking a 1999 version starring Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie and Ewan McGregor would have been optimal? There definitely isn’t enough meat on these bones for six hours and that means that the first two hours are frustratingly flat, almost to the point of genre parody in the intersection between the three main characters and their inevitable, barely substantiated, entanglement.
Of course it almost goes without saying that things which look coincidental probably aren’t and there’s probably a puppet master of sorts here and if these first two hours were the first 15 minutes of a movie, it would be acceptable scene-setting, not gruelingly perfunctory. It’s an introduction with very little energy, so you quickly come to appreciate flashbacks featuring an energetic Robert Aramayo — Young Ned Stark for Game of Thrones fans — as Adele’s institutionalized chum.
The middle episodes work because for a long time, you can’t quite get a read on who that puppet master might be. All three points in the love triangle are occupied by people who have reasons to be predisposed toward obsession. Louise, played by Brown with the series’ widest emotional range, is plagued by her lack of sleep and by insecurities from being without her young son, who’s spending the summer with his dad. David is a mass of brooding cliches and you’d be fairly sure he was the malevolent one were it not for how gloriously peculiar Adele is.
This is Hewson’s second six-part limited series to premiere on American TV in less than a week, following Starz’s adaptation of The Luminaries, and she has settled into a nice niche of strangely, but thoroughly inhabited performances as underwritten women. Hewson makes Adele into a deceptively placid guessing game of a character, finding unnerving moments in tasks both banal, like the symphony of micro-expressions as she sips on a cup of tea, and inherently menacing, like the chopping of herbs with a giant knife.
It isn’t always clear what Strand is accomplishing as a director — the sex scenes are more comical than erotic, the dream sequences become repetitive quickly — but he definitely likes framing Hewson and her geometrically precise bob in ways that are unnerving.
Just as you never know whose nefariousness is going to rise to the surface, Behind Her Eyes is at its best when you don’t know what the inevitable “twist” to the story is going to be. Does it involve drugs? If you have Eve Hewson in your project, opiates will inevitably be involved. Does it involve dreams? Or is something supernatural afoot?
I’ll just say again: Once things start going from big open questions to bigger, poorly supported revelations you’re either so deeply invested that you’ll just accept the series of big turns in those last two episodes or you’ll be completely infuriated that opportunities to actually make Behind Her Eyes something psychologically rich are completely tossed out the window.
Netflix’s short-lived erotic thriller Gypsy wasn’t very good, but it at least understood that using psychiatry exclusively for superficial purposes in the genre is a waste of potent subtext. Anything beneath the surface in Behind Her Eyes is irrelevant by the end.
Cast: Simona Brown, Eve Hewson, Tom Bateman, Robert Aramayo
Creator: Steve Lightfoot, from the novel by Sarah Pinborough
Premieres Wednesday, Feb. 17 on Netflix.
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