Behind Her Eyes
“I’m going to have a decadent weekend of me. I’ll lie in. Eat cheap pizza and ice cream and maybe watch a whole series of something on Netflix.”
That’s Louise, one of the two female protagonists in Behind Her Eyes, on page 31 of the copy of Sarah Pinborough’s novel that I borrowed soon after getting this assignment. It’s also me, thinking about watching Netflix’s Behind Her Eyes adaptation, hoping the whole series indeed turns out to be something decadent, something great for a weekend of lying in and eating ice cream. (It is 3 p.m on a Saturday as I work my way through Behind Her Eyes’ six episodes, and I am still in my pj’s and halfway into a tub of rocky road.)
A Perfect Murder, Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Gone Girl, A Simple Favor, The Girl on the Train: When I think about that Venn diagram of suspenseful psychological crime thrillers, the maybe-crazy-woman genre, and the unreliable-female-narrator device, what I want most is something sleek and sudsy, twisty and tantalizing, with a story line that keeps me not just involved but entwined. I want to feel like I can’t look away, not just because I need to know what comes next and how it all ends, but also because I’m helplessly invested in the characters; despite their infinite gray shadings and the lengthy pro/con lists of their virtues and faults, I want the good guys (or at least, the guys I perceive to be good) to get their happy endings while the baddies get their comeuppances. To put it more plainly: I want the cinematic equivalent of the unputdownable quality that so many of the books these movies are based on possess. Meanwhile, feeling like I also can’t look away because the whole production is just so sumptuous, stylish, and chic is always, for me, a nice bonus. (Blake Lively’s A Simple Favor pantsuits forever!)
Then there’s the question: To read the book, or not to read the book? I never know what the right answer is, so I’ve split the difference: I started reading Behind Her Eyes, which was published in 2017 and written by prolific British novelist Sarah Pinborough. And because I began (but to clarify, haven’t finished) the book, I can tell you that the biggest page-to-screen change I’ve noticed so far is that in the book, Louise is white. In the series, though, Louise is portrayed with open-faced, affable sincerity by Black British actress Simona Brown.
The premiere episode kicks off in Louise’s nothing-fancy London flat as she’s anxiously primping for a rare night out with a gal pal. Her comically dowdy next-door neighbor is babysitting Louise’s school-age son, Adam, and the opening is all light and girly: nothing ominous, nothing gritty, just glossy. After her friend stands her up, Louise stands up to leave the bar and literally bumps into a handsome man, spilling his drink on him. She offers to make amends by getting him another, and she’s visibly stung when she finds out his replacement Macallan Scotch is gonna cost her 12 pounds.
I wonder if making Louise a woman of color for the series was a way to visually shorthand her difference in socioeconomic stature, both in this moment and later on. (In the book, there’s talk of who’s “middle class” and whose accent is “pure public school,” while this American knows those things have much different meanings in the U.K., she’s unsure how exactly to articulate them.) But I also wonder if Brown was just the best actress for the part because, instantly, I’m Team Louise. It’s like she can’t help but exude goodness; whatever’s going to happen, she’s clearly the one who deserves the best outcome.
Louise and Handsome Macallan do what strangers do after meeting clumsily at bars: They wind up kissing out on the sidewalk. Until he abruptly pulls away and says he can’t do this. We soon find out why: He’s David (Tom Bateman), her new boss at the psychiatry clinic where she works as a secretary (and which, with its glass-walled courtyard, looks more like an architect’s weekend home in Santa Barbara). Plus, he’s married.
Louise has other problems, we learn, in the form of night terrors. She repeatedly dreams about pills spilling to the ground, clocks ticking, and her son getting trapped inside the walls of an ominous hallway. She sleepwalks while she dreams and wakes in a screaming panic.
Over at David’s house, a strange scene unfolds as he’s about to leave for work. “Well, then,” he says as a sort of signal. His wife, Adele (Eve Hewson), responds by dutifully walking over to a cupboard, retrieving a pill and swallowing it, clearly for his benefit. A satisfied David tells her he’ll call her later that morning, at 11:30. Adele follows David out of the house as he leaves, kisses him, and tells him she loves him. He replies, “I know.” In a later scene, David will surprise Adele by gifting her a credit card and a flip phone. Huh?
Adele is dressed in billowy layers of creamy satins that make her look like she’s in a commercial for a high-end mattress — or, to put it in a more relevant way, like she’s the stylish psychotic of the show, the fashionable femme fatale. But, also, David kind of seems like a psycho? Or at least, he seems cold and dispassionate. Adele is trying way too hard, and David seems like he couldn’t care less. My confusion is further amplified after Louise and David redo their meet-clumsy at the office, where they finally exchange names as well as more witty banter. David appears to be instantly taken with her. (And why wouldn’t he be? She’s goddamned luminous, I tell you!) He seems so human and insecure in this scene; why was he so borderline cruel back at his house? Is that a role he’s playing for Adele’s sake for some reason?
At a dinner party with David’s colleagues and their spouses, David and Adele reveal that they were “definitely ready to move on” from wherever they were before and that relocating to London was “a real opportunity.” Adele reiterates to David once they’re back home, “I want this to work. New job. New start,” while a weary David responds, “I can’t do this again, Adele. This has to be the last time.” They have sex, but he can’t look her in the eye. The next morning, we can see what looks like scar tissue on David’s forearm.
That leads us into a flashback featuring a long-haired Adele, again decked out in pale tones, walking through the countryside. “You’re the girl that paints fires. Sorry about your parents,” a similarly dressed dude hanging out in a tree says to her. “Next time, paint some water instead. Tell them, ‘The fires represent my grief, but water is washing it away.’” It’s a scene that conveys a ton of backstory with utmost efficiency: Adele was institutionalized after her parents were somehow killed.
More exposition comes shooting out of the screen when Adam returns from his weekend at his dad’s house. The dad, Ian, tells Louise that he wants Adam to spend a month in France with him and his new significant other, Lisa, because Lisa’s pregnant and they all need to bond as a family. Louise is majorly thrown and insists Adam can’t go, until her supportive friend Sophie asks her, “Do you want to change your life? Then this is your chance.”
In the premiere’s final scene, there’s a parallel meet-clumsy … between Louise and Adele. It happens on a street corner after Louise has dropped Adam off at school. Louise recognizes Adele from a photo on David’s desk: “It’s you,” she blurts out awkwardly, forcing her to explain, “I work for your husband.” Adele (again with the drapey pastels!) claims she just walked David to his office, except I’m pretty sure she didn’t. In that prior scene where Adele took the pill, she walked David to their front gate while still in her pajamas; she told David she planned to go to the gym, then she walked back into the house. And what she’s wearing when she runs into Louise is, again, not gym clothes.
Instead, Adele asks Louise to join her for an impromptu cup of coffee, “to make up for knocking me down.” She adds, “You’ll lead. I’ll follow.” Adele seems to be sizing Louise up. Louise seems like she’s trying to avoid eye contact (just like David). Everyone seems to be fucked up.
So what do we know? We know that Adele was in a psychiatric facility and her parents died in a fire that she possibly set, although David’s got a big burn mark on his arm, so maybe he set the fire, or maybe Adele’s set other fires since that first one. Was David her first psychiatrist? Is he a controlling husband, or is it just that he knows how unhinged Adele is? Was Louise and Adele’s run-in really a chance encounter? For that matter, was Louise and David’s?
In other words, what we know is very little. But I’m good with that. In the book, Pinborough uses the word fizz a lot to describe how her characters feel in their gut, and that’s how I feel now. I’m fizzy over this second chance encounter, and I’m fizzing to see what comes next.