Seance on a Wet Afternoon
D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   J O E   P E T T I T ,   J R .

Billy and Myra Savage could be mistaken for an average middle aged couple dealing with grief and personal misfortune in post-WWII Britain. Billy (Richard Attenborough) can't work due to his asthmatic condition. He almost slavishly capitulates to satisfying the will of his wife. With his basset hound looks and his sad eyes, he seems beaten down by all that life has to offer. He holds no hope of ever changing his fate, epitomizing the model of the downtrodden British man meeting all of life's blows with a stiff upper lip. Myra (Kim Stanley), a fading beauty whose best days are behind her, dominates the household with a casual grace, and with the expectancy of someone who is used to getting what she wants. She rarely raises her voice, making her demands in assured and positive tones, as if her desires were the most reasonable and obvious courses of action. The couple live in an inherited Victorian house and survive off of Myra's work. All well and good and normal. Except Myra is a medium who claims her spirit guide is her dead son, Arthur, and they have casually formulated a plan to catapult Myra into national recognition and fame, involving kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy businessman, holding her for ransom, and eventually having Myra come forward to solve the case, thus proving to the world the truth of her psychic abilities.

Released in 1964 to modest acclaim in Britain and garnering an Academy Award nomination for Kim Stanley in the U.S. (she lost to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins), Sťance on a Wet Afternoon was multi-talented director Bryan Forbes' third outing, and his third pairing with Richard Attenborough. Both had worked on League of Gentlemen in 1959 as actors, with Forbes doubling duties as a script co-writer. Both returned to the same duties in 1960 in The Angry Silence. A labor of love for Forbes, Sťance on a Wet Afternoon got hung up early on in production due to the casting of Myra. A suitable fit for the part could not be found. Rumor has it that Forbes and Attenborough briefly considered rewriting the role for a man, but fortunately Kim Stanley stepped forward to claim the role.

Sťance on a Wet Afternoon succeeds on a number of levels. Amazing performances by Attenborough and Stanley carry the movie beyond the realm of the average. Attenborough characterizes Billy Savage as a capitulating and down on his luck middle class chap. He seems to have completely given up on making his own mark on the world, devoting himself to actualizing the plans his wife sets in motion, no matter how crazy they may seem. On first viewing, Billy comes off as weak-willed and uninspired. Only after the action has played out does Billy appear in a different light -- as a compassionate husband who will go to great lengths to snap his wife out of her insanity. Kim Stanley, as Myra, owns the film. Her virtuoso performance as the medium who wants the world to "embrace the truth of her gift" covers a wide range of emotion and detail. Myra possesses a child-like view of the world, a simplified, almost new age vision of how things come to pass. Unlike a child, she's unassailable in her reason. Nothing can bring down her house of cards; nothing shakes her from her plans. Any event that goes awry can ultimately be interpreted in the light of the plan as "good." Only in a few moments, where Myra recuperates alone after a detail goes differently than planned or during the final argument between Billy and Myra, does Stanley reveal her fragility. Myra is a frightened little girl who chases after approval and recognition the only way she knows how -- through the weekly demonstration of the truth of her gift.

Gerry Turpin's moody cinematography perfectly captures the shadowy, morally ambiguous world of the Savages. Wisps of smoke and shadows during the sťances evoke the intrusion of the spirit world. Blasted landscapes dominated by rusted out industrial sized pipes and screaming trains descending into darkened tunnels symbolize the moral decay of Billy Savage as he wearily goes along with Myra's increasingly strident demands and extreme plans. John Barry's score, reminiscent of the quirky, free jazz of Eric Dolphy circa Out To Lunch, adds another effectively skewed dimension to the proceedings.

One of the fine details of the film is Forbes' choice not to explain whether Myra's "gift" is real or not. We know on some level that she is a fake (because of the elaborate plans she concocts to prove her abilities) and that her sanity deserves to be questioned. There are moments however when her channeling slips out of her control. In those moments, the "spirit" that possesses her betrays details that Myra wouldn't want to reveal. We're never sure whether this is her guilty conscience or an actual spirit stepping in to betray Myra's ambitions and to protect the kidnapped girl. This ambiguity lends additional depth to the film. We don't know whether to classify it as a crime story about a fake medium who goes too far or as a supernatural thriller where the ghost never appears. It's a brilliant choice to leave the question unanswered and to draw the viewers into creating their own meaning for the ending of the film.

Home Vision Entertainment's presentation of Sťance on a Wet Afternoon does not do justice to the movie. While the transfer is decent (though occasional scratches and speckles appear throughout the film) and the sound is usually clear and contains depth, especially during Barry's musical score (some slight-but-noticeable hissing doesn't detract from the film), the DVD includes no extras -- which is a shame. Sťance on a Wet Afternoon is a perfect example of a film that merits a commentary track, either by director Bryan Forbes, actor and producer Richard Attenborough, or a noted film scholar. Viewers want to know the production history, details of the film's reception, and maybe some speculation on why such a powerful film isn't better known or cited more often by film critics. That must have exceeded HVE's budget. Instead the DVD includes a thoughtful two-page essay by Michael Rubiger, which appears in the insert booklet. It's better than nothing, but I was left wanting more.

Having undeservedly sunk into relative obscurity since its release almost forty years ago, Sťance on a Wet Afternoon is one of those lost films that perfectly fits the bill for a DVD renaissance. I, for one, hope this release generates enough interest in the film for a definitive DVD edition with commentary and lots of extras. Sťance on a Wet Afternoon certainly deserves such red carpet treatment.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is now available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment in a new digital transfer (1.66:1) that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The disc contains no special features. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Home Vision Web site.


Photo credits: © 2002 Home Vision Entertainment. All rights reserved.