An impressive cast, including Judi Dench, Dan Stevens and Isla Fisher, can't quite pull this classic play into the 21st century
It is hard to go far wrong with the words of Noël Coward, but Blithe Spirit gives it a damn good try. Edward Hall's uncynical adaptation revamps Coward’s classic 1941 play for the 21st century by exaggerating its euphemistic wordplay and gestural comedy to anamorphic proportions. With new locations and a young cast, he tries to take this supernatural drawing room comedy out for some air. It soon falls flat.
In late 1930s London, Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is a novelist and socialite staring down the barrel of a typewriter. His new wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) has helped his novel get optioned by her movie producer dad, but the process Condomine is inflicted with writer’s block. It would seem he hasn’t recovered from the death of his first wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann).
So he bickers and flirts with Ruth through their distorted Edwardian house, every room a different pastel colour – it goes for Paddington 2, but haunts like Peter Greenaway. When Ruth plots infidelity with a friend at a tennis court while Condomine looks on unawares, one is momentarily convinced that Coward is getting the Match Point treatment.
Then the pair hire a hack spiritual medium, Madame Arceti (Judi Dench). She bumbles into summoning Elvira’s ghost from the great beyond, and the ensuing chaos drives the film’s remainder. Dench plays the role originated by Margaret Rutherford with eyebrows arched like Catherine Cummings, and is the most engaged she has been in years as Madame Arceti, even if she is given an emotional arc that explains away the weirdness of a great comic character.
In fleshing out and expanding its world, though, Blithe Spirit over-explains itself and digs away at the double entrentres. Only Julian Rhind-Tutt as sardonic seance attendee Dr. Bradman seems to really lock into the Coward of it all. “I hope she's not lactating,” he says, curling his lip, at mention of Tutankhamun’s wet nurse. Things take a turn for the worse when Elvira shows up. Mann’s ghostly demure act with Dan Stevens falls flat, and even the most attuned ear will struggle to work out where exactly her accent is located. As Ruth and Elvira battle for Condomine’s affections, a gentle level of intrigue mildly holds your interest.
Yet the success of David Lean’s classically stiff-upper-lip version of Blithe Spirit casts an inevitable shadow over this production. Cinematographer Ronald Neame’s bold use of technicolour special effects to summon Arceti’s ghosts remains as unmatched as Rex Harrison’s deadpan performance. The new version barely differentiates living from dead, with just a blurring motion effect representing a ghost reaching out to the corporeal realm.
And indeed, the ghosts of British cinema linger around the edges, too. This film is already out of time – released to a world with no cinemas, but of an era when movie palaces were ubiquitous. Dave Johns of I Daniel Blake fame makes a wordless cameo as a best garden competition judge. Is this the best that the British film industry can do with its older actors? The screenwriting team behind Fisherman’s Friends, here on script duties, should ostensibly be masters of the genteel heritage comedy. But this version of Blithe Spirit is afraid to be bold or take risks, packed as it is with broad comedy and soaped-up storylines. If the aim is to switch new viewers onto the genius of Coward, it's going to take a lot more spirit than this.
Blithe Spirit is available to stream on Sky from 15 January.Where to watch