Student Model: Film Review

Alfred Shaughnessy, Simon Langton and June Wyndham-Davies's Afterwards
by Adam Gruendl

Fall 2008

Afterwards is a film episode from the television series Shades of Darkness and is based on Edith Wharton’s short story of the same name. From Granada TV in 1985, it was produced by June Wyndham-Davis, directed by Simon Langton, with the screenplay by Alfred Shaughnessy. The setting of the film, which makes extensive use of the house and the landscape, is rural England. The film incorporates several gothic elements such as fright, an old house, and a ghost - the ghost of Elwell - utilizing dramatic cinematic themes discussed later. The central theme of the work is Mary’s dependence on Ned as the center of her life, and that she is now abandoned and trapped in the house and unable to connect with the presences therein. An underlying message of the story is the lust and greed for wealth and the lack of conscience in obtaining it – in this case in an arguably unethical fashion when Ned Boyne dupes Bob Elwell. The main characters are Edward “Ned” and Mary Boyne, played by Michael Shannon and Kate Harper.

In a brief synopsis of the story, Ned and Mary Boyne have always wanted and are searching for a country place, specifically in one of the southern or southwestern counties of England to give themselves to harmonious activities: he to produce a long-planned book on “Economic Basis of Culture,” and she to do painting and gardening. Ned toiled long and hard as an engineer, and they are suddenly able to afford the house through a stock windfall. The windfall was dubiously obtained by Ned from Bob Elwell in a transaction that financially ruined Elwell. Distraught about his ruin Elwell attempts suicide but lingers for nearly 2 months. After purchasing the “dream” home, Elwell’s ghost appears and Ned Boyne disappears leaving his wife distraught. The home the Boynes’ have dreamed of in essence becomes Ned’s undoing.

From a cinematic perspective, Afterwards is tame as frightful film if one uses modern standards of blood, gore, and violence - it strikes me much more as a suspenseful film. Nevertheless, in constructing the suspense and the fright, the director uses ingenious techniques with his shots, lighting, and scene transitions.

In the very opening scene, and in nearly every subsequent transition, the viewer nearly never looks over a character’s shoulder from behind as the character enters a room, or transitions from one room to the next. The viewer very nearly always observes the character’s entrance from deep within the room being entered. In other words, the viewer often sees from the perspective of the house, not the perspective of the character. In the opening scene, the first image is the interior door latch to the door of the house, and then the camera recedes to the back of the room to observe the characters enter. The same technique is employed many times entering the library, the great room, the attic, and the drawing room. It is almost as if the house/room is luring the people in. In subsequent scenes, there are many, many doors, and the Ned and Mary are lured deeper and deeper into the house. Of course the doors always represent choice – one can continue on course, open a door and chart a different course, or shut a door on an undesirable course.

The surrounding landscape also contributes to the theme of captivity or isolation. At one point Ned even comments that the English are lucky because they can get lost in such a small space because of the secluded countryside. It seems as if every shot of the landscape coveys remoteness and seclusion. It is as if the landscape is the fence around the prison that is the house, or as if the landscape keeps watch over the house.

In most scenes until Ned disappears, the director’s use of lighting nearly always brightly illuminates Mary and the other characters, but casts shadows or duskiness on Ned. Again and again, Ned is seen murkily and in the shadows creating the sense of darkness and foreboding. Ned’s business dealings with Elwell are a moral grey or murky area; consequently, the viewer most often sees Ned in a murky or shadowy light. In addition, the viewer rarely sees a straight-on, full-facial shot of Ned. He is most often viewed from the side or at an angle which again casts shadows upon him. This intangible property also ultimately places him beyond Mary’s reach.

The director uses a voice-over technique to transition to the final scene. After the viewer hears the voice in Mary’s head as she reads Parvis’ letter, she is dreaming, and the voices in her dreams are hers and Ned’s. As Ned’s voice repeats several times, “Tell her I’m here,” the final utterance of the phrase is by Parvis which startles Mary awake and provides the transition from the dream to the fateful final scene where, in the library, Mary deduces the man with whom Ned disappears is the ghost of Elwell, and that she will never see Ned again. Neither in the dream nor in life is she able to contact Ned or the ghost – again they remain beyond her reach.

The film is memorable far less for the acting than for the directing and cinematography. The prevailing “characters” in the film are the house and the landscape. One sees the house from two perspectives: from the exterior from a distance looking, weathered, dark, and foreboding, and almost never seen in sunlight, as it lures the viewers towards it; and from deep in the interior as it lures the characters in. Mary and Ned have always wanted the house, and the house in essence draws them in and consumes them. The house is Ned’s conscience, and it’s fair to say it bothers him. Because Ned was the center of Mary’s life, the house and the landscape become her prison – a barrier between her and the supernatural elements. The house, the landscape, the shadowy and murky lighting, and the voice-over all depict separation seclusion, and imprisonment, and in so doing render Mary helpless and isolated.

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