Blithe Spirit, much like the recent adaptation of Rebecca, has a whole lot of history attached to it. It’s adapted from Noël Coward’s play of the same name, a witty comedy of manners that combined farce and tragedy in such a brilliant way. There was an earlier film in 1945 directed by David Lean, with Noël Coward as one of the writers onboard. While the play has remained popular on the stage since, it actually makes sense to adapt it again for film, since modern technology could offer something new to the supernatural spaces of the film.
However, since I already compared it to Rebecca (which was a gothic chore of a film), I think you have an inkling of where this is headed.
This new version of Blithe Spirit, directed by Edward Hall and starring Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher and Leslie Mann, doesn’t invigorate or elevate the source material. Instead, the whole film is bogged down by a lackluster script, with actors that are more capable than the material handed to them. Forget screwball comedy, this is sheer boredom, a film so painfully dull that even the presence of Dan Stevens cannot salvage it. It’s such a shame, for if there’s an actor who has both the comedic chops and dramatic props to pull off a role like this, it’s Stevens.
Stevens plays Charles Condomine, a mystery writer who is trying to make the leap into screenplays, with the help of his lovely wife of five years Ruth (Fisher), whose father is in the movie business. Unfortunately, Charles is having a prolonged case of writer’s block, despite the fact that he’s adapting from one of his own books. He also hasn’t written a thing since the death of his first wife Elvira (Mann). As a way to gleam some inspiration for his screenplay, Charles invites Madame Arcati (Dame Judi Dench) to conduct a séance in their home, and while Arcati is quite clearly a fraud who doesn’t know what she’s doing, she somehow accidentally summons Elvira back from the dead – in ghostly form, of course.
Oh yes, Dame Judi Dench is in this too, and is so utterly wasted in her role. While Blithe Spirit is not on the level of travesty as Cats, it once again reminds us of how much the film has wasted actors of such calibre. She plays her role too earnestly for what is supposed to be a screwball comedy, though at this point, it’s hard to fathom what exactly the film’s aim is. We discover the reason why Charles is having difficulty churning out material, since Elvira was the creative well that kept his pen flowing, and when she died, the pen dried up.
Now that she’s back, albeit in ghost form, she and Charles dance in the swirls of nostalgia as they remember the good times they shared, and how much they missed each other. Ruth is caught up in the middle of all this, having to contend with her husband’s dead wife and Charles fluctuating attention. The thing is, I have seen Fisher at her comedic high back in Wedding Crashers, so her so-called shenanigans in this one just seems tame in comparison. Mann, who has done great comedy work in movies like Knocked Up and George of the Jungle, conjures a credible socialite energy, but the character never quite makes an impact.
The last act is pretty much the nail in the coffin, with the film taking a turn into a feminist angle that it didn’t properly set up. Blithe Spirit’s saving grace is the set design and costumes. The Condomime’s sprawling estate suits the couple and is reflective of their lifestyle, and the cast look fantastic in their various garments, with the women contrasting each other (Elvira mostly in red and black, while Ruth got the more docile colours like green and brown). But alas, a film needs to do more than just impress on those levels, and when it comes to the narrative and script, Blithe Spirit floats away and never quite retains the gravity of its various predecessors.
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Every adaptation should strive to improve on its predecessor. Blithe Spirit squanders this opportunity, and instead serves up an offering so muddled that all we can feel is a casual indifference.
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