Noel Coward remains one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed playwrights, even if his light comedies have by-and-large fallen out of popular favour. His 1941 play Blithe Spirit is probably his most famous work, and was adapted into a film by director David Lean in 1945. That film was a commercial disappointment upon release, but gradually became considered a classic of its time. Now Coward’s play has been adapted for a second time by director Edward Hall. Sadly this version is not likely to be remembered as a classic. In all honesty it will be lucky if it is remembered at all.
Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is a struggling British screenwriter who, despite his five-year marriage to Ruth (Isla Fisher) continues to mourn his deceased first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann). When Charles arranges a seance with the elderly medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), he intends to use the experience as grist for the mill in his writing career. Instead she somehow summons Elvira’s ghost – and Elvira is intent on making the reunion permanent.
There is a tremendous level of confidence required to take one of the last century’s most famous plays and try to improve it. Writers Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth have simply undertaken an effort to update Coward’s writing for a 21st century author; they have discarded the original script wholesale, radically reshaping the characters and giving the entire work a page-one rewrite. A loose resemblance of the original remains, but it is overrun with poor dialogue, weak characterisations, and a film-breaking lack of proper humour. If there is a single sentence that encapsulates this whole film, it is this: Blithe Spirit simply is not remotely funny.
The cast do their very best to overcome the film’s problems, but are generally left to flounder. Dan Stevens comes across as actively unlikeable as Charles, while Isla Fisher – an underrated comic talent – lacks material to showcase her best efforts. Leslie Mann – another comedic actor with superb timing and skills – feels like the worst misfire of the three. Coward wrote characters with a delicately balanced light wit, and sadly Moorcroft, Leonard, and Ashworth replace that wit with an obvious and dull coarseness. The film’s first half is awkward and tonally uneven. The second half feels like an active chore. Even Judi Dench, usually a guarantee of some entertainment value, is given needless backstory and a sullen, melancholic sub-plot.
The whole enterprise seems utterly bizarre when you examine its director. Edward Hall is a theatre director, and the founder of the widely acclaimed Propeller Theatre. He has directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company. His work has been staged on London’s West End and in Japan. This is his first feature film, although has directed a number of underwhelming works for television including Trial & Retribution 11 and the Agatha Christie adaptation Sleeping Murder. It is a shame that the inventiveness of his theatre work does not appear to have rubbed off on his debut film.
The most inventive addition to this new iteration is to switch Charles from an author to a screenwriter, but its attempt to frame the feature through the lens of the 1930s film industry is not exploited in any meaningful or creative way. It is a weird case where swapping the play’s elements around a little has broken its charm while swapping them around more extensively may have made the production worthwhile.
Originally set for a theatrical release, Blithe Spirit has instead come to screens via streaming services – Amazon Prime in Australia. You should feel quite comfortable in leaving it there.