Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
The BBC’s psychological thriller The Replacement, about a female architect feeling deposed by her maternity cover, was written and directed by Joe Ahearne and screened in 2017. Well received by critics and viewers save for some concerns over the climax, it was notable as a return to material like Trance (2001, remade by Danny Boyle in 2013) for Ahearne after horror outings Apparitions (2008) and The Secret of Crickley Hall (2012). That said he is on record as considering himself a director first regardless of theme, and indeed the new Glasgow-set serial displays Ahearne’s love for the visual side of story-telling including Hitchcockian misdirection and other kinds of unusual, subtle or complex camerawork. This 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 frame. By eliminating the mid-ground in this way the distance between the characters is emphasised without making explicit who is isolated from whom, or why. This ambiguity is critical, as the plot hinges on which (if either) of the principal characters’ paranoia has any basis in reality. And after all, ‘screen’ does have two entirely opposed meanings – to show and to hide. With other scenes, things are observed by one character from a distance with the other party placed very small in the frame. Ahearne is open about his direction of The Replacement including nods to the split-screen technique briefly popular in theatrical features at the very end of the 1960s; later shots include one of Ellen, in her car close to the camera, failing to see Paula appearing, waiting and then departing many metres behind her on the pavement – both elements are in sharp focus. In another, pleasingly elegant example, Ellen and her husband converge at the middle level of their home having entered the same shot from the floors below and above it respectively. The architecture that permits this makes the image a kind of televisual triptych. The plate-glass windows and internal partitions of the practice’s 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 also frank in his admiration for 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 then-contemporary television typically permitted.
In episode two, 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 moving smoothly with her and then after her as Georgia exits by the other door and Ellen is forced to follow. Her car, and her baby, are now even further behind and diagetic music swells then fades to underline this disconnect. Nervous backward glances by Ellen reinforce the point. That Paula then arrives in her own car and views – though never hears – Ellen’s half of the exchange that finally ensues (Georgia remains concealed behind a wall) adds a satisfyingly dizzying additional layer to a visually complex but assured moment that is also entirely organic. The entire sequence is then repeated in reverse as Ellen returns to her car, increasing the tension.
Elsewhere, Paula’s unexpected arrival at the office and Ellen’s reaction is brilliantly depicted in an audacious 540 nodal pan (the camera rotates for one and a half turns) that lasts for a full minute, whilst a montage of job applications is given life 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 is still rare to see a television director demonstrate such awareness of the range of possibilities available to him; that Ahearne is able to apply that knowledge in service of a script that arguably calls for it confirms his skill in both roles.
Less dramatic but still rewarding for the eye is the extensive use of Glasgow locations, ncluding the powerful Linn Crematorium and the 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 low contrast gloom that so often signifies ‘mood’ today. Shadows are important, of course, but are here confined largely to the exquisite opening titles, a kind of Saul Bass out of Maurice Binder sequence in which silhouettes of the characters populate a model of the library strongly side-lit by washes of primary colour, the camera in motion all the time. Executed by ISO Design it is, Ahearne tells me, his favourite title sequence since Ultraviolet, with similar ideas of moving shadows.
Assessing the narrative, early viewer comments referenced Single White Female (1992) as a precedent; personally, I cleave toward The Mechanic (1972) , 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. The novelty of the setting, 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 contribute. And whilst I share those frustrations over the ending, which Ahearne ended up responding to in public, the unusual attention he pays to what is actually seen on screen is also highly rewarding. He has certainly ensured that “the bits that interest me most with [using] the camera” as he put it to me will interest others, too.
The Replacement was produced by Nicole Cauverien and Left bank Pictures for the BBC
Posted 9 December 2020; this piece also appears in slightly different form as a blog post on 20 March 2017