Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)

2009 #64
Bryan Forbes | 111 mins | TV | PG

Seance on a Wet AfternoonDespite being an early-60s British domestic drama, Seance on a Wet Afternoon has a plot that one might describe as high-concept: a medium kidnaps a little girl so she can prove her abilities by revealing where the girl is. But, unsurprisingly, the execution is more in line with its roots: more drama than overblown thriller, not so much about the kidnap plot as the psychological state of Kim Stanley’s medium, Myra Savage, and her downtrodden husband, played by Richard Attenborough.

It certainly doesn’t start high-concept either, beginning with a near-15-minute dialogue-driven enigmatically expository two-hander. Some would consider the whole film too slow, I’m sure, but once it gets past this (to be frank, over-long) opening it maintains an appropriate pace. It never threatens to become a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride, but what it does do is build tension and gradually unveil the true natures of the two leads. In this regard it becomes something of a showcase for Stanley and Attenborough.

In a word, Stanley’s performance is stunning. Initially just a Hyacinth Bucket-esque overbearing wife, as the film continues we learn more about her almost solely from what Stanley brings to the role. By the final scene, when the truth of her character is laid bare, there’s little doubt that she’s given an extraordinary performance. She was Oscar-nominated for her role, losing out to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins. I love Mary Poppins as much as the next well-adjusted human being, but Andrews’ relatively simple role isn’t a patch on the complexity Stanley has to offer.

In the face of this stiff acting competition, Attenborough holds his own throughout. His transformation is more understated perhaps — the ‘revelation’ here being that he is not downtrodden but in fact incredibly supportive, something that will only dawn on the viewer late on but shed a subtly different light on what has gone before — plus there is a degree of skill in portraying a character doing reprehensible things but who remains the audience’s surrogate ’til the last.

Bryan Forbes’ direction is also first-rate. He keeps things clear and simple during dialogue scenes, but adds scale with location work in busy London streets, and flair during a few tense sequences. The best of these is the second seance, where the kidnapped girl sleeps in a room next door. As she begins to stir, the viewer is torn between wanting the Savage’s plan to succeed and wanting the girl to be rescued from their misguided scheme. Such a dichotomy of feeling is entirely reliant on the skill displayed by Stanley, Attenborough and Forbes up to that point, building our allegiance to these characters in spite of what they’ve done.

Unfortunately, the film isn’t without its flaws. The story doesn’t always hold up — some of the police procedure is dubious at best, while the Savages’ scheme comes off as much through chance and luck as planning. In fairness, our ability to spot the former is probably in part thanks to decades of police procedurals filling the TV schedules, while the latter actually fits the under-confident, ill-prepared, dubiously-sane protagonists, and coincidence is mostly confined to the plot’s early stages. Some elements of the plan make you wonder how they ever thought they’d get away with it, though at the same time you have to allow that maybe they just weren’t that self-aware.

The real key to the film, however, is what’s slowly revealed over its course: Myra Savage’s mentality, as well as the truth about the history of her abilities and marital situation. To reveal any details would ruin the carefully controlled slow explanation of who these people are and what background they come from, all of which builds to a beautifully performed final few scenes. Seance on a Wet Afternoon may have a high concept driving its plot, but the true delights are to be found in its characters and the actors’ performances of them.

4 out of 5