Things Heard & Seen is Two-of-a-Kind
“Things that are in heaven are more real than things that are in the world.”
Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century theologian quoted in the opening frame of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s Things Heard & Seen, cleaved his life in two. A scientist, mathematician, and inventor for nearly three decades in the early 1700s, Swedenborg abruptly traded fact for faith after a series of visions and dreams, spending the remaining three decades of his life writing on matters of religion, spirituality, and mysticism. Despite emerging 239 years after his death, Things Heard & Seen bears the imprimatur not just of Swedenborg’s philosophy, as embodied by the aforementioned quote, but also of the way in which he lived. Released on Netflix today, the film finds itself similarly split in two: one half gothic relationship drama and the other half supernatural horror.
The story is a simple, oft-repeated one: in 1980, Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried) gives up her life and job in New York City to move to a small, rural community when her husband, George (James Norton), gets a job teaching art history at the local college. Things go wrong, the house has a history, the husband hides a darker side. We have seen this before, but Things Heard & Seen wisely explores the shadowy crevices of a familiar story. In particular, it wisely delves into the pervasive side-lining and gas-lighting that women of that era were subject to by the men in their lives - at first subtly, and then later a bit too explicitly when it directly links the feminist struggle across the astral plane.
Springer Berman and Pulcini also play with genre expectations to good effect. In their circumscribed rural college town, seances are cause for connection rather than concern. A light flickers. A chair tips over. Things Heard weaponizes the known beats of the supernatural just in time to subvert our fear into something seldom seen, something less malignant, something less sinister. The pair filter light and color in fragmented ways to keep both their characters and their audience just a bit off their axis - uncomfortable without knowing way, an unidentifiable sense of foreboding. A heavenly shot of Catherine from below - from hell, perhaps - that comes in the wake of a vivid nightmare is a particularly striking visual.
But no matter what Swedenborg may believe - and Catherine as well, reading his seminal text throughout the story - things in our world have very real consequences. And as the matriarch of Claire family is pulled further toward the ethereal, it’s the very tangible threats that manifest themselves most plainly. Things Heard doesn’t unveil itself immediately, choosing to do so in a small series of smaller reveals, using Catherine as an audience cypher as we discover through her eyes. It leads to the good kind of confusion; the film doles out just enough bread crumbs to keep you intrigued, wondering where the next one will lead. It’s taut story-telling.
Seyfried is good, particularly in the quiet moments of hope that seem so out of place on the face of a lifelong sufferer. Norton thrills as a seemingly normal husband, like if Armie Hammer had played the Winklevoss twins with even an ounce of subtlety. It’s tonal balancing act gets uneven at times, including in the unfortunately maudlin final frames that muddy an otherwise stunning finale. But no matter. Things Heard & Seen remains a singular ghost story and a beautiful new film.