Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a moody, solemn film. Jazzed up a little, modernized, the plot could have be played for black comedy, but here, directed by Bryan Forbes, it’s a grim march towards tragedy. The movie makes that work, even if it results in a somewhat monotonous tone.
The premise is irresistibly great. Myra Savage (Kim Stanley) is a professional medium, making her living off séances where she communicates tantalizingly non-specific details of the dead to her eager, desperate listeners. But Myra believes in herself, a truth Stanley puts across in every moment, turning Myra’s eyes into those of a slightly mad prophet. Myra is convinced that she can take her talents to a wider stage–if she only had the opportunity to get a little more publicity. She uses her husband Billy (Richard Attenborough) as a cat’s-paw, sending him to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. They’ll send a ransom letter, Myra reasons, but they will never really collect on it. They won’t keep the money. It’s all just a device so that she can pass along accurate information to the parents, who will then thrust her into the limelight.
Almost immediately, of course, things start going wrong. Billy is weak and weary, but he also has a conscience and rationality his wife lacks; not only can he not keep going along with the delusion that they’ve only “borrowed” little Amanda Clayton, he can’t stop himself from caring for her. He understands children, despite being acutely aware of the absence of his own. Myra, who has persisted in believing that their son who died in infancy is her constant spirit guide, has no such awareness and no such empathy. She’s unprepared for the reality of Amanda, which is put across unglamorously and well. Amanda doesn’t just accept stories from strange adults without asking questions, she knows enough to poke a few holes in their story, and she can be quarrelsome and clever. Myra views her solely as a pawn and is irritated by her personhood; Billy views her as a child and can’t live with how she’s being used as a pawn. And aggravating the growing tension in the household is the police investigation and the obvious truth that these two are not master criminals. Something has to give.
This would make great paired viewing with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: fatefully ill-matched couples with contentious relationships with their invisible children, with other people caught in the crossfire.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.