Séance on a Wet Afternoon
Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.
Myra: We have borrowed a child, Billy. Borrowed.
This means that, for all there are reveals hinging on what the viewer does or doesn’t know, there’s significant expository dialogue that might have been more effectively rendered through the transition to cinema itself. Then, I’ve never been overly sold on Forbes’ progression from actor to director anyway, an arrangement whereby he could ensure Nanette Newman featured in each new project, whether she was suitable or not.
I suppose you could argue the theatrical approach either way: that Forbes resists upping the potential for spooky emphasis, so avoiding making what is, essentially, a highly unedifying premise even more distasteful. Additionally, one could readily imagine only a nudge shifting the picture into the realm of the risible, so slender is its grip on anyone perceiving the plan as plausible. Ultimately, I don’t think he’s imaginative enough to juggle the kitchen sink/supernatural/crime movie elements, which is why the dust settles into something closer to a standard chamber piece.
Myra: Why did I ever marry you, Billy?
Bill: I don’t know, dear. Why did you?
Myra: Because you’re weak. And because you need me.
Bill: Well, those are two good reasons.
The problem I encountered with the material going in was that I couldn’t see how it would support a plot that was all laid out for an obvious resolution; there’s no doubt from the first that Myra (Kim Stanley) is unbalanced, and there’s no doubt – because she keeps reinforcing the point – that Bill (Richard Attenborough) is obedient to her wishes, however wrong-headed he thinks she is (and he certainly does, although clearly not enough to draw the line at following her hare-brained scheme). She plans an abduction of a child, and from thence a resolution to the situation through her intervention with the vital psychic goods, so reaping the fame this will bring. Powerful as the leads are, much of the film is a two-hander, and their back and forth covers insufficient ground to fully sustain itself.
Mr Clayton: Well, what’s in it for you? You must have some angle.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon’s depiction of delusion might have been the more effective had some of the more obvious character traits been dialled down a notch; we can see so clearly that Myra is antic in disposition, and because we can see so clearly – because Bill keeps saying so, that he doesn’t believe in it, and because the plan itself is absolutely barking – the only suspense generated relates to how it will go wrong, not if.
Which is why it’s rather surprising – and frankly, even less credible than her idea that they might pull it off – that Billy actually succeeds in grabbing the cash at the exchange. Not to mention that the various areas set up for a fail (the kidnapped Amanda, played by Judith Donner, failing to stir or be happened upon when left alone for hours in a sidecar). All this following the equally unlikely duping of Amanda’s chauffeur in the first place. As put-upon as Bill is, as a criminal he has an enormous amount of luck, it seems.
Amanda: Caroline says you only go to hospital to die…
Myra: Well, Caroline is just being very silly.
Amanda: No, she isn’t. She’s very clever. She’s a Christian Scientist.
Early on too, it seems as if precocious Amanda may outwit her kidnappers, offering a string of pertinent objections to Myra’s nurse disguise, including her inability to take a temperature and pushing her to diagnose the absurd “Double German Measles”. Later, she tells Bill “You don’t smell like a doctor”. But this element doesn’t last. Neither does the potential for Myra putting herself in frame as a police resource. That in itself might have been a means to produce suspense. Instead, she visits the Claytons just the once.
However, Newman’s Mrs Clayton does materialise for a séance, the proceedings themselves proving something of an effective misdirection; Myra’s trance state is depicted as genuine, rather than simply feeding Mrs Clayton information, which is why the premonition of death adds an edge, something Forbes pursues into the sequence where Bill appears to be disposing of Amanda’s body.
Myra: She’s seen you, Billy. She’s seen your face. Do it for me, please. Then we can both be safe forever.
Despite these objections, it’s very evident why posters boasted “Two of the greatest performers you will ever see…” Stanley, with her faux-coquettish inflection is both deeply disturbing and deeply annoying. She’s absolutely convincing as a delusional woman hoisted by her own petard. I particularly like the beat when she is leaving the Claytons’ and the plod warns her “Reporters. You don’t want to get mixed up with them”. That’s exactly what she wants, but she is forced to maintain the illusion and leave by the back gate. What Stanley is unable to do, though, is supply Myra with any degree of sympathy.
Myra: He believes what I believe.
That might in part be because her co-star invites it all. Attenborough, in a fake nose even the monochrome can’t forgive, is playing older (how much is never entirely clear, but he “rejuvenates” himself to an approximation of his actual age for a disguise scene, albeit he still wears that fake conk). He’s in a phase of interesting roles here, post his cheeky youthful types and prior to a descent into prestige picture (as a director) bloat.
While Stanley, rarely seen on the big screen, took the main plaudits, including a Best Actress Oscar nod, Bill is the more impressive performance, contained and simmering (Attenborough, who also produced the film, won Best Actor BAFTA that year, shared between this and Guns at Batasi). It seems Forbes considered making Myra and Stanley a gay couple (hoping for Alec Guinness and Tom Courtenay, the latter willing but Guinness unsurprisingly didn’t want the attention the part might bring). Which might have been distinctive, but it wouldn’t have solved the problem of needing to open the film out.
Mr Clayton: We had a man in here a half hour ago offering to find our daughter with a diving rod.
I liked that Séance on a Wet Afternoon leaves ambiguous the possibility of Myra’s genuine abilities (some reviewers are firmly in the court that she is depicted as entirely deluded, by I tend to only partly so). She’s clearly barking, but the final séance suggests she is receiving genuine information about Amanda being alive, not having been disposed of by Stanley as agreed. Of course, this could have been intuited, in much the same way that Mark Eden insinuates she has gleaned information concerning his daughter (she has, but not in the way Eden assumes). And the desire to kill Amanda so she can be with dead son Arthur could equally, as Stanley suggests, be the product of her sick psyche (“Arthur doesn’t exist. He never existed. He was born dead. You never saw him. I was the only one who saw him. They wouldn’t let you see him”). But there’s also the possibility – and her trance state certainly doesn’t deny the possibility – that “Arthur” is a malign influence manipulating her for its own dark ends.
Superintendent Walsh: As a matter of fact, I’m president of my local society for psychical research.
Frankly, I welcomed the third-act shift from the almost exclusive company of Myra and Bill upon the arrival of Patrick Magee’s Superintendent Walsh (accompanied by Detective Sergeant Beedle, played by Attenborough’s brother in law Gerald Sim). Advocates might say this illustrates how effectively claustrophobic Forbes has made the preceding proceedings, but that’s not it at all; what you’re wishing for is some new spark to ignite the drama, and the séance, knowing as we do from the looks between the policemen that they’re wise despite professing to need genuine help in their investigation, provides it.
Bill: We’re mad, you and me. We’re both mad.
While I’ve been aware of this film for decades – probably ever since first seeing it listed on BBC2 matinees in the 1980s – I somehow always managed to avoid catching it (probably never the right wet afternoon). I always admired its evocative title. Séance on a Wet Afternoon conjures something both drab and otherworldly, which doesn’t really convey Forbes’ film. Like his better pictures, it’s a showcase for acting talent, but less formidable as a piece of cinema in its own right.