What laughs will be manifested by a visitation from these spirits?
There is a lot that is immediately likeable about Blithe Spirit. For starters, there’s the aesthetics of the 1930s setting: the cars, costumes, and the Art Deco house. Then there’s the cast featuring Dan Stevens with his particular brand of face acting that makes him almost unrecognisable from film to film, and certified national treasure Dame Judi Dench. Finally, there is the plot, an adaptation from a Noel Coward play beloved for its comedy. Unfortunately, instead we get a film which starts well, but is less than the sum of its parts.
Writer Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is a man in a pickle. He can’t seem to get his latest project – a film adaptation of his first successful novel – off the ground, and things are getting strained with wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) as a result. To seek out some inspiration he asks spiritual medium Madam Arcati (Judi Dench) to perform a séance for them and some friends at his home. It ends up working a little too well as the spirit of Charles’ first wife, the glamourous Elvira (Leslie Mann), is unexpectedly summoned. The problem being that Charles is the only one who can see her, and she’s not too happy about being replaced.
Comedy ghost stories have a lot of potential and when done right they are endlessly entertaining. Unfortunately, once we get past the initial setup there is not much to director Edward Hall’s film. There are attempts to give the plot something beyond simply two women fighting over a guy by having Elvira be the actual brains behind Charles’ previous writing success, making her presence a necessity to finish the script, and other elements that play to a theme of women getting their own back after being wronged, but the execution doesn’t land the way it needs to.
That’s not the fault of any of the cast, as Stevens is enjoyably manic, Mann is clearly having a lot of fun as Elvira, and Fisher makes for a good foil to them both. Blithe Spirit runs out of momentum and doesn’t have that snappy madcap energy required for farce. There is only so much you can do with people thinking Charles is crazy because he’s the only one who can see Elvira, and by the time it starts addressing his deceased wife wanting to murder to be with him it’s hard to remain invested.
Maybe part of it is because the film spends so much of its runtime being even more removed from Noel Coward’s play than even the 1945 David Lean version was. For example, why is Charles struggling to adapt his own novel? Yes, it’s made clear early on that he didn’t write it, but if you have the book there surely adapting it would be relatively simple since the plot already exists, so why even have the need for the séance for research? It would surely make more sense for him to be writing an original screenplay and experiencing writers block during the process.
That said, one of the biggest deviations from the source material was actually one of the things I found most enjoyable. Dench’s Madam Arcati is delightful, and her character and motivations are greatly expanded upon rather than just being an instigator of the shenanigans. If anything, it works as the emotional heart of the story. If that had been balanced with the necessary wackiness of the central plot it really could’ve worked. Blithe Spirit is perfectly watchable for a rainy afternoon and does elicit a few chuckles, but it’s a ghost of a film; too insubstantial to have any real presence.
Blithe Spirit will be available to watch on Sky Cinema from January 15.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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