• 'The Replacement'

    The BBC’s psychological thriller The Replacement, the story of a female architect feeling deposed by her maternity cover, concluded last week. Well received by critics and viewers, save some concerns over the climax, it was notable for being written and directed by Joe Ahearne, whose work I have often championed and who kindly continues to keep in contact to share his thoughts. Significantly, it marked a return to non-genre material for Ahearne after bringing Apparitions (2008) to life and adapting and directing The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012), though he is on record as considering himself a director first regardless of theme. The quality of pieces as different as Ultraviolet (1998) and Trance (2001, remade by Danny Boyle in 2013) tends to confirm this. The new Glasgow-set serial, then, also displays Ahearne’s love for the visual side of story-telling and, specifically, Hitchcockian misdirection, with unusual, subtle and often complex camerawork that is evident from the very first episode.

    As Paula settles in to the practice that Ellen is about to leave, Ahearne composes certain of the latter’s point-of-view shots with the edge of her computer monitor boldly intruding into the frame. By eliminating the mid-ground in this way the distance between the characters is emphasised without making it explict who is isolated from who. This ambiguity is critical, as the plot hinges on which if either of the principal figures is paranoid. And after all, ‘screen’ does have two entirely opposed meanings – to show and to hide.

    Ahearne is candid about this being his nod to the split-screen technique of the 1960s and 70s, and later shots include one of Ellen, seated in her car close to the camera, failing to see Paula appearing, waiting and then departing dozens of metres behind her on the pavement – both elements are in sharp focus. In another, pleasingly sophisticated example, Ellen and her husband converge at the middle level of their home having entered the frame from the floors below and above it respectively, the open-tread staircase that permits this also effectively making the shot a kind of televisual triptych.

    There are in fact lots of scenes in which things are observed partially by one character from a distance with the other party placed very small in the frame. The plate-glass windows and internal partitions of the architects’ office are also used as separating devices – as Ahearne notes in the same interview, characters are often seen but not heard, building further uncertainty despite the transparency.

    Ahearne is frank in his admiration of Hitchcock. He shows this in The Replacement with a series of shots in which the camera moves fluidly and sometimes probingly, and which are sustained far longer than the grammar of the overwhelming majority of contemporary television allows.

    In episode two, then, Ellen meets the mysterious Georgia at a corner café. Spotting the woman standing at the counter, Ellen leaves her car – and her baby – and walks inside, a Steadicam smoothly moving with her and then after her as Georgia exits by the other door and Ellen is forced to follow, her car, and her baby, now even further behind. The venue’s piped music swells then fades to underline this disconnect, nervous backward glances by Ellen reinforcing the point. That Paula then arrives in her own car and views – though never hears – Ellen’s half of the exchange that finally ensures (and Ellen’s only, Georgia remaining concealed behind the wall) adds a satisfyingly dizzying additional layer to the moment. The entire sequence is then repeated in reverse when Ellen returns to her car, and hopefully her baby, helping sustain the tension.

    Elsewhere, Paula’s unexpected arrival at the office and Ellen’s reaction is brilliantly depicted in an audacious 540 degree nodal pan that lasts for a full minute, whilst a montage of job applications is given animation by the use of continuous wipes as the transitional device. Ahearne is not afraid to tease the viewer, too, as seen in a crucial scene at Ellen’s home involving her baby. It’s rare to see a television director show such awareness of the possibilities for camera use other than the conventional two-shot, insert or cutaway, and appropriate that that knowledge is applied in service of a script that arguably calls for it.

    Less dramatic but still rewarding for the eye is the extensive use of Glasgow locations, including the powerfully Modernist Linn Crematorium and the new Lawlor house, this last ‘playing’ the library that Ellen and Paula design. Ahearne is well served by his director of photography Nick Dance, whose crispness and warm tones make a refreshing change from the regulation gloom that signifies mood currently. Shadows are important, of course, but are largely confined to the exquisite opening titles, a kind of Saul Bass out of Maurice Binder in which silhouettes of the characters populate a model of the library strongly side-lit by washes of primary colour, the camera moving all the time. Executed by ISO Design it is, Ahearne tells me, his favourite title sequence since Ultraviolet, with some similar ideas of shadows moving.

    Aside from all this, early viewer comments referenced Single White Female (1992) as a precedent; personally, I cleave toward The Mechanic (1972) directed by Michael Winner, in which a veteran hitman thinks he's training an acolyte but the acolyte has other ideas. Ahearne, though, is clear on his inspiration: “I lean more towards All About Eve”, he emails.

    Overall, The Replacement works for several reasons; the novelty of the featured profession and location city, the excellence of the cast (especially Morven Christie and Dougray Scott), the acidity of much of the dialogue and the layering of the inter-personal, inter-familial and professional relationships that we all have to negotiate day to day. And whilst I share those critical concerns over the ending, the unusual attention paid by Joe Ahearne to what is seen on screen is highly rewarding in itself, and ensures that “the bits that interest me most with [using] the camera” will interest others, too.

    The Replacement, produced by Nicole Cauverien and Left bank Pictures for the BBC and written and directed by Joe Ahearne, is available on the iPlayer

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

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