A plan has been formed; medium Myra Savage and her mild mannered husband Billy will kidnap a wealthy couple’s daughter and hold her for ransom. But they are not in it for the money, it is a ploy in order for Myra to gain recognition as a medium by solving the case through supernatural methods. However, the best laid plans do not always turn out as expected, and as the strain of their actions become apparent will Myra’s desire for fame come to fruition?
Made by Beaver Films, a company created by Bryan Forbes and Richard Attenborough, Séance On A Wet Afternoon is probably the best movie these collaborators were responsible for. On paper it is a kidnap thriller but is in reality much more that that and at its heart lies a character study about a couple who are both damaged by a past event. The disturbed and deluded Myra dominates her apparently weak willed and ineffectual husband Billy and the abduction forms the backdrop under which their relationship is explored.
In the film the kidnapping of a child is a criminal act without any comfortable distinctions between good and evil. It is far more complicated than that and in representing this complexity Kim Stanley is the key to the film giving one of the most intense, believable and engaging of female performances. At times she comes across as child-like, in the way she speaks, in the way she treats her husband, and her steadfast belief that things will turn out okay. Even when events take a sinister turn she is still blinded by her desire. But she is not a monster, it would have been easy to turn her into such a creature, especially the idea of a woman planning this type of crime which for some reason makes it more distasteful. But Stanley creates a layered persona that, if not evoking total sympathy, can eventually be understood by an audience. Essential to this is Arthur, the conduit for Myra’s connection with the spirit world, a figure that hangs over the film and is connected to the couple via a tragic and personal incident, one which it seems Myra has never fully recovered from.
But if Myra’s mental instability blinds her to the moral implications of what she is doing it is her husband, Billy who has to do all the work, who has also to bear the burden of the guilt for both of them. Richard Attenborough brings this equally complex and arguably more sympathetic individual to life with a perfectly pitched portrayal. On the surface he appears to be a rather hen-pecked husband, but as the film progresses it becomes apparent that he is a loving spouse who will do anything to please his wife, even going along with child abduction to keep her happy. It feels as if this incident is another in a long line of bizarre compulsions with which he has had to comply. Of course this cannot last and Billy’s realisation that the ‘game’ cannot continue, that the weight of his actions cannot be kept bottled up any longer, comes to a head when he confronts his wife in a compelling scene. However this is surpassed by the revelatory finale in which the truth, as so often happens, cannot be contained, and is exposed during the films climactic séance.
Complementing the performances is Forbes’ unobtrusive direction, he forgoes fancy camera tricks and overly stylistic visuals in order to allow both Stanley and Attenborough the freedom to act in a way that is totally realistic. Forbes further creates realism in the unique (for the time) choice to film in actual London locations, this adds a believable and thrilling edge to such scenes as the money exchange, which occurs in a busy Leicester Square tube station. As well as realism Forbes is expert at creating a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere, with many scenes involving just the husband and wife, alone in an empty joyless house. A slightly macabre feeling is established when the viewer realises that the mundane suburban activates of the couple are in fact elements of the kidnap plot, whether it is absentmindedly cutting up newspapers to form the ransom note or preparing the room that will become their abductees’ prison. The final essential element in making Séance On A Wet Afternoon a top notch cinematic experience is the score by John Barry. Here he shows his diversity, creating a main theme that hints at the supernatural , the mysterious. His finest achievement however is during the kidnapping in which the score replaces the screams of the terrified child.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon is an expertly crafted movie and with its theme of child abduction is still relevant to a contemporary audience. Set firmly in the real world it boasts a superb set of performances, most notably from Kim Stanley as the complex Myra and Attenborough as her husband, who it could be argued is in some ways a representation of her conscience. An intense study of one woman’s fractured, deluded psyche and what it is like to be the loving partner in such a relationship the film also works as a thriller, as taught and dramatic as many modern movies.