1 Hr., 55 Mins.
Séance on a Wet Afternoon December 22, 2018
yra (Kim Stanley), an unstable Brit of about 40, thinks she’s special. “I sometimes wish I were ordinary,” she sighs to her craven, asthmatic husband Billy (Richard Attenborough). “Like you. Dead ordinary.” Myra, who makes a living off holding séances and doing psychic readings in her home, is purportedly a clairvoyant. It seems more likely, however, that she’s simply mercurial or possibly delusional
— characteristics that we surmise were exacerbated when her son, Arthur, tragically died at childbirth years ago.
In Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), which is an adaptation of a novel by the Australian author Mark McShane, Myra’s caprices will dangerously evolve. Shortly into the movie, after wrapping up a scantily attended séance session, Myra relates a scheme to Billy. Inspired by a suggestion she says Arthur’s spirit shared with her, she has recently become fixated on accelerating her psychic career through alarming means: Myra wants to kidnap — or “borrow,” as she often says — the young daughter of an industrialist (Mark Eden).
She has mapped out the plot with industrious detail. After Billy grabs the child and knocks her unconscious, he and Myra will hold the girl in their guestroom, which will be disguised as a hospital room. After the inevitable newspaper headlines come out of the woodwork, Myra will offer her services to her victim’s clueless parents. Billy will then drop the child off miles away — likely somewhere in the countryside — and then Myra will declare that, through her supernormal powers, she has deduced where the little girl has been taken. Financial gain isn’t the name of the game. The aim is to make a name for herself, which will, hopefully, help her bank account anyway. At first, Billy is incredulous. But Myra, a bulldozer in comparison to the self-effacing him, eventually convinces her husband to assist her in the crime.
The way Séance on a Wet Afternoon conflates probable mental illness, grief, and crime-thriller attributes is disorderly and unevenly affecting — especially since the film has a difficult time settling on a cohesive tone. But it is nonetheless a riveting melodrama, in part due to its performances and Forbes’ intelligent construction of all-encompassing sadness.
Stanley and Attenborough’s portrayals vibrate in their intensity and persistence, which is unusually beneficial to the movie’s tottering tone. It helps that they’re believable as a perhaps once-healthy couple who’ve been rattled by tragedy and an increasingly unbalanced dynamic. We speculate about what their relationship might look like had it not been ravaged by this gloom. Forbes effectively emphasizes the surrounding woe: the inners of Myra and Billy’s home are inky and Victorian, enhancing the interior claustrophobia; the abutting British streets are dour and cold.
Fortunately the finale, during which the braid of misunderstanding reaches the end of its line, isn’t as tragic as the come-up might have had you expecting. But Séance on a Wet Afternoon is still a minor masterwork in misguided despair and unprincipled attempts at getting ahead in one’s miserable life. It isn’t a consummate character study, but its bare display and committed performances are enough to grip. B+