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SÉANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON


Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough
Director:  Bryan Forbes
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1
Studio:  Home Vision Entertainment
Features:  None
Length:  115 Minutes
Release Date:  September 24, 2002

“Don’t be afraid.  It’s just a game…it’s just a game…”

Film **1/2

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a superbly acted, smartly crafted and sumptuously photographed crime and character drama that unfortunately falls flat at the end with a contrived finale that frustrates.

Kim Stanley is wonderful in her Oscar nominated role as Myra Savage, a mentally frail but emotionally strong woman trying to make do as a psychic and a medium.  She holds a weekly séance in her home, where she (and others) believe that she can communicate with her long dead child and find answers for people through him.  She may not really have any powers as such, until the moment the script calls for them…in a surprising later revelation, we find out why.

Also good is a young Richard Attenborough as her long suffering husband, Bill.  Bill is the opposite of Myra:  he’s mentally sound, but emotionally weak.  He meekly does his wife’s bidding, even though he (and we) constantly question the sanity of her decisions.

Myra has come up with a grand scheme to prove her prowess as a medium.  She wants Bill to “borrow” the young daughter of a wealthy couple, stage a full style kidnapping including a ransom demand, and then she will use her “powers” to convey to the couple where the child and the money is.  With her celebrity secure, their future should be as well…yet these people aren’t real criminals, by any stretch, particularly Bill.  Is the scheme really foolproof?

Setting up her deceased child’s bedroom like a hospital room, they care for and keep the unsuspecting child while Myra’s plan unfolds.  But the girl is smarter than she looks.  And Bill’s nervous state makes him an unlikely candidate to keep a cool head when most called for.

All of this is satisfying, as I mentioned, up until the final stretch.  Usually in crime dramas, particularly ones in decades past, there is a unmentioned conscience dictating that those who commit the acts pay the price in the end.  Without giving away too much, there seems to be some of that at play here, only it’s carried out in a fashion that can only be described as manipulative.  Hardly a worthy conclusion to such a thoughtful exploration of character and deed.

Director and screenwriter Bryan Forbes uses black and white photography superbly…in fact, the look of the film is one of its greatest pleasures.  He uses an otherwise lovely Victorian styled home to create atmosphere out of light and shadow, and manages to even bring about suspense here and there with a few simple strokes.  But the strength of the performances is probably the picture’s biggest asset.  Ms. Stanley and Mr. Attenborough seem to thoroughly explore their characters, and bring out their few strengths and many weaknesses on the screen for all to ponder.  This material would make for an excellent play, if it hasn’t been done so already.

There’s so much to enjoy in Séance on a Wet Afternoon that I wish I could recommend it more highly.  For many, it’s been a quiet fan and critical favorite for nearly four decades.  But for me, I enter into a thriller with a certain amount of faith that the resolution will be worth the time and emotional investment I put forth.  This is simply an instance where that is not the case.

Video ***

Home Vision Entertainment did a commendable job with their anamorphic transfer, keeping all of Bryan Forbes’ remarkable visual style intact.  The black and white photography is luminous, with excellent detail, crisp lines, clean whites and deep blacks.  The only marks against the presentation come from the print itself, which suffers from a few spots and scratches here and there (it’s quite noticeable in the darkest scenes).  Still, some effects of aging are acceptable for a film this old, so it earns high marks overall.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack offers dynamic range, but mostly by getting quieter instead of louder.  During some of the séance scenes where the characters spoke in hushed whispers, I found myself constantly clicking up the volume on my receiver so as not to miss any dialogue.  John Barry’s score is a plus.  Overall, the presentation is clean, with minimal noise, and is serviceable, if you crank it up just a tad.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

I’m no medium, so I didn’t see the ending coming…had I did, I might have forgone Séance on a Wet Afternoon, though to do so would have deprived me of a well acted and beautifully photographed study of two fascinating characters.  Some might and have found the finale more satisfying than I…for fans of the film, this DVD offering from HVe should be a treat.