Bryan ForbesPatrick MageeNanette NewmanMark Eden
Seance on a Wet Afternoon
Medium: film
Year: 1964
Writer/director: Bryan Forbes
Writer: Mark McShane [novel]
Producer: Richard Attenborough
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, Seance on a Wet Afternoon
Country: UK
Actor: Kim Stanley, Marian Spencer, Richard Attenborough, Judith Donner, Mark Eden, Nanette Newman, Diana Lambert, Gerald Sim, Patrick Magee
Format: 115 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 5 July 2011
I watched this because I thought Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Seance (2000) was a cock-up, yet this 1964 British black-and-white film based on the same original novel seems highly regarded by all and was Oscar-nominated. There's also an 2009 opera based on the same source material, of all things.
Is it fun? No. It's slow, not to mention claustrophobic. Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough are a stupid middle-aged childless couple with a bad plan. Stanley is borderline delusional and you can't have a rational conversation with her on anything important. Attenborough is a miserable doormat who knows that what they're doing is wrong, but is powerless against his wife. The film's a study of their marriage, really, which means you can forget about having a good time with this film since they're both clearly broken.
The tragedy is that I'm sure they'd have been wonderful parents, especially Attenborough, and their gloomy house would have been transformed by children. However it wasn't to be. They're just growing old together, with nothing in their futures but more of the same, and it's driven Stanley slightly out of her mind.
What gives the film its force is their plan, which is a catastrophically bad idea. It also has victims. Stanley thinks it'll turn out beautifully and that no one will get hurt, but she's living on cloud cuckoo land. This film isn't merely a study of a pair of pathetic middle-aged losers, but instead a tense and occasionally even creepy movie that keeps you wondering about how far things will go. Maybe they'll do something terrible deliberately? There's no way of predicting Stanley's thought processes. Alternatively, maybe they'll cause it to happen by accident, which perhaps even more likely and something that in some ways makes them scarier than professional criminals would have been. Look at how they manage the handover of the money, for instance. You'll have to watch a lot of movies before you see anyone arrange that in a manner more open to disaster.
In the end, all this builds into something that surprised even me. The finale is powerful and I went away impressed. If you've got an attention span, I'd recommend this film.
Obviously it's all about the actors. Kim Stanley was better known as a stage actress, not a screen one, but she was Oscar-nominated for her work here and you've got to admire the intelligence with which she tackles it. You need clarity in a role like this. She's playing someone who's silly, irrational and can be depended on to do the wrong thing, yet she keeps all her beats real and motivated, instead dissecting the role with such precision that you understand exactly where she's coming from and almost feel you're being taken inside her head. You don't dismiss her. You keep watching. Stanley holds your attention and, in the end, creates something remarkable. Incidentally she hadn't even been their first choice for the role, with lots of better-known actresses either being uninterested or unsuitable... Margaret Lockwood, Anne Bancroft and Simone Signoret had all been approached for it.
Attenborough has a less difficult role, but he's more obviously attention-grabbing. He knows he's weak. He hates himself sometimes, but he can't live without his wife. It's fascinating and appalling to watch him go through this existence with her, clearly in love and just as clearly being tortured. Worse yet is the fact that he's a good man. He's kind, although not that bright. There's something uniquely creepy about seeing a good man, against his better judgement, do a bad thing.
Those two are shatteringly good. They're the reason why this is a strong film about which critics raved, despite the fact that it didn't set the box office alight and today is comparatively obscure. However it also contains other noteworthy performances. The child's parents are Nanette Newman and Mark Eden, the latter in the same year he played Marco Polo in Doctor Who, and they make you feel their pain.
The writer-director, Bryan Forbes, I best knew until now as the director of The Stepford Wives (1975). He made five films with Richard Attenborough as producer, of which I hear that this is both the darkest and the least financially successful. Neither of those is hard to believe. Forbes and Attenborough had incidentally both started out as actors before moving on to be better known as directors (and more), but the difference between them is that Forbes at this point had already given up on acting, more or less, while Attenborough was obviously still keeping it up. Obviously also Attenborough's by far the more prestigious name.
I like the film's treatment of Stanley's clairvoyance, incidentally. It didn't occur to me almost until the end that she hadn't just been fantasising it all, but if she weren't, it would fit. That's a subtle touch.
Overall, an impressive achievement. However it's imperative to know in advance that it's not a horror film. It's not even a thriller. You'll get bored if you go in thinking that, whereas in fact it's a psychological study of these two broken people and their mutually parasitic relationship. It eventually builds up a lot of power, but not in a sensationalist way. I'd recommend it, albeit only to the right audience, and it's interesting to compare it with the Japanese version to see why almost every decision Kurosawa made was a mistake. Making the wife's psychic powers real? It gave us some nifty visuals, but no. Trying to convince us that our protagonists' decisions are reasonable? That's madder than they are. Forbes on the other hand starts with Stanley and Attenborough finalising their plan and hits us up front with their warped and rather sad psychology, so there's never any question of a credibility gap. You and I wouldn't do anything like that, but that's because we're not them.
Incidentally the author wrote a sequel, Seance for Two (1972), but no one's yet turned that into a movie.