Behind Her Eyes (Netflix, 2021, dir Erik Richter Strand)
I'm often struck by our continual fascination with the Jane Eyre story. Perhaps it's the love triangle that does it. It certainly continues with Behind Her Eyes.
This six-episode British psychological thriller premiered on Netflix in February 2021 and is based on a novel by Sarah Pinborough. The main thing that attracted my attention in the immense ocean that is the Netflix array of offerings was the presence of Tom Bateman in the cast list. I've never seen him in anything that wasn't amazing, and he is such a versatile actor.
Behind Her Eyes is set in north London, in the leafy suburbs of Islington where ridiculously expensive property sits cheek by jowl with areas of city deprivation. David is a psychiatrist who has recently moved there from Brighton. His wife Adele has previously suffered from depression and, after the death of her parents in a fire, was institutionalized for a while. She met Rob, also a patient, but their paths diverged after her release when she married David.
Some terrible secrets linger in their recent past, including the event that spurred the hasty relocation from Brighton to London. We also wonder why Rob is no longer a part of Adele's life.
Both David and Adele are profoundly unhappy in their marriage. She is depressed, he scarcely less so even if outwardly his life appears more functional; their life of privilege courtesy of her inherited wealth (which he has legal control over due to her mental health issues) and respectability through his professional work has not brought them peace and contentment.
David's assistant Louise is a single mother juggling work, raising her young son and hoping to find love. He begins an affair with her, while Adele befriends Louise, perhaps without knowing of the affair. Louise scarcely knows which of them to believe as she gets caught up on their troubled marriage and is stuck in the middle of their dysfunction.
The inspiration Behind Her Eyes takes from Jane Eyre was by no means obvious. Rather it lingered in the background. The casting of a woman of colour in the 'Jane' inspired role of Louise was an intriguing reversal of the racial basis of Jane Eyre itself. Here, the white woman is mentally ill, incarcerated and forced to watch as her husband David (the Rochester figure) takes control of her considerable wealth.
There was also the addition of a fourth character, Rob, a white gay man. This widened it beyond the traditional love triangle. Rob is possessive of Adele, but not because he loves her, more because he wants to be her. The viewer sees their interactions a decade earlier in the flashbacks that consume an extensive part of the screen time, and this was very welcome. There is much mystery about what has happened in the intervening years, but to see the initial contact between Rob, Adele and David was essential.
The use of colour in this moving and tense drama was what stayed with me most. It was particularly striking. White has been closely associated in literature with mentally ill women since Wilkie Collins' Victorian mystery novel The Woman in White. Adele wears white, as does Rob, in the facility where they are both treated for mental health issues.
Adele continues to be defined by her time in there, voluntarily wearing white while inside her home and garden. She spends almost all her time there, and it is almost as much an institution for her as the facility where she was incarcerated before. When running or going to the gym, however, she is able to break free of that constraint and wears black. By contrast, Louise's vibrant personality and busy but satisfying life is shown by a mix of lively colours, both in home decor and in her clothing choices.
The natural world of peace and tranquility, both at Adele's childhood home and at the institution is portrayed in muted shades of brown and green. Woodland featured strongly. These colours stay with Adele, and she paints a mural of trees in blue, green and deep brown onto the sterile white walls of her London home. The cinematography was incredibly strong. Location shooting was another strength of this show. I know the area in which it was filmed quite well, and every opportunity was taken to film out of doors.
The absence of Rob, only fully explained in the final moments of Behind Her Eyes, left Tom Bateman's David as the only central male character. The mystery around his hero or villain status was carefully and subtly portrayed by Bateman, of whom I am a real fan. He produced a performance as nuanced and varied as any I have seen him give, and he provided a worthy interpretation of the complexity of the original figure of Edward Rochester, upon whom his character was based.
I loved the Behind Her Eyes retelling of the Jane Eyre story, and the final twist upon a twist ending was one of the most inventive I've encountered in any medium for a long time.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my review of Time and Again by Jack Finney here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Armageddon Rag by George RR Martin here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of Foyle’s War here.