This version of Blithe Spirit is laborious, and its high-profile stars have almost no chemistry.
The simplicity of Noel Coward’s 1941 play Blithe Spirit gets muddled in the new film adaptation from director Edward Hall, which adds extra plot details but loses much of Coward’s wit. There are certainly outdated aspects of Coward’s play that could stand to be refreshed, but Hall and the three screenwriters do more than just smooth over problematic references. Perhaps in an effort to expand the story beyond its stagebound origins, they lose the focus on the central trio of characters, adding in new supporting players and subplots that clumsily attempt to place the story in a larger historical context (it’s set in 1937 England).
David Lean’s 1945 film adaptation is essentially a feature-length sitcom, and while it’s breezy to a fault, it’s always entertaining to watch. Hall’s version of Blithe Spirit is laborious, and his high-profile stars have almost no chemistry. Dan Stevens plays author Charles Condomine, who in this version is dealing with writer’s block as he attempts to adapt one of his popular novels into a screenplay. His movie-studio boss also happens to be the father of his wife Ruth (Isla Fisher), who comes off as a judgmental scold. There’s no sense of love and comfort of their relationship, which is struggling thanks to Charles’ professional difficulties and his apparent inability to perform sexually (the characters sleep in separate twin beds, like in a 1950s sitcom).
When the couple attend a disastrous stage show by self-proclaimed medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), Charles gets the idea to incorporate elements of the supernatural into his screenplay, and he recruits Madame Arcati to conduct a séance at his home. The conjuring goes awry, and soon Charles is being tormented by the ghost of his late first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann), who is none too pleased to see her former husband has moved on with another woman, even though she’s been dead for seven years. Meanwhile, since only Charles can see the ghost, Ruth at first thinks that her husband has gone insane, and then when she experiences definitive proof of Elvira’s presence, she’s determined to get rid of the interloper.
Hall adds a darker tone to Coward’s frivolous story, but much of the playwright’s sparkling wit is lost. Rather than a zippy, fast-paced exchange of quips, the dialogue is often expository and dull, and there aren’t many laughs along the way. Instead of simple jealousy between Elvira and Ruth, now there’s a whole subplot about how the two of them support and enable Charles’ professional career in different ways, but his professional failings are entirely superfluous to the narrative, and the ultimate outcome still has a vaguely misogynistic tone, even after giving the female characters greater agency.
Madame Arcati, who’s just a batty local town resident in the source material, now has her own emotional arc, which makes sense if you’re going to cast a living legend like Judi Dench, but adds nothing to the story. A big part of the appeal of Madame Arcati as played by Margaret Rutherford in Lean’s version is that she’s an oblivious loon, and making her into a grieving war widow who wishes to reconnect with her long-dead husband only adds dreary sentiment to what should be a lively tale. Dench can bring emotional depth to nearly any part, but every time Blithe Spirit cuts away from the Condomines to spend time with Madame Arcati, the momentum grinds to a halt (and the meager laughs disappear entirely).
At least the three main stars seem to be having fun, and Mann gets to wear a different fabulous outfit every time Elvira appears, which is a much better deal than the sickly green makeup Kay Hammond was stuck with in the previous movie. But Mann can’t seem to decide whether Elvira should be nasty or vulnerable, and the character mostly just turns out to be annoying. It’s hard to envision Elvira and Charles having been in love, although to be fair it’s hard to envision that for Charles and Ruth, either. Stevens can certainly play a suave old-fashioned English gentleman, as he did for years on Downton Abbey, but his Charles is a sputtering idiot, and Blithe Spirit goes out of its way to reveal him as petty, hypocritical and stupid — and not in a funny way.
Fisher gives the most toned-down performance of the three, but that means Ruth mostly fades into the background, always playing catch-up to the bickering between Charles and Elvira. The lovely period costumes do more to liven up the film than the performers do, and there’s a certain enjoyment to just watching attractive people flirt with each other while wearing stylish, colorful outfits. But a movie adapted from the work of one of the most sophisticated playwrights of all time should offer more entertainment than that.
Starring Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann and Judi Dench, Blithe Spirit opens Friday, Feb. 19 in select theaters and on VOD.
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