Nöel Coward’s comedic play about a writer haunted by the ghost of his late wife has been adapted for the screen many times over the century. The most prominent film version is David Lean’s 1945 Technicolor picture, which may never be surpassed. With a more campy tone and greater emphasis on slapstick, this latest take humbly concedes that it will not match up to the 20th-century depiction. Instead, Edward Hall’s (Downton Abbey) movie aspires to be the black comedy Death Becomes Her for a new generation. However, while it contains charming performances, it doesn’t serve up any of the well-known piece’s iconic visual jokes.
The story opens in 1937 with gloomy Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) suffering from writer’s block and desperately seeking a way forward. Living in a contentious marriage with his second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) presents more conflict; in her view, his mind is still occupied by his late spouse Elvira (Leslie Mann). In an effort to provoke change in any capacity, the downhearted protagonist takes it upon himself to visit the popular stage performer Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) who holds a séance for him. The resurrection of the deceased partner is an unexpected outcome, and her ghost torments her former mate’s existence.
Ruth can’t see the phantom of the first wife and her husband’s encounters with an invisible woman offer decent comic fodder. The lead seizes the opportunity to be amusingly eccentric and his madcap performance is matched by the director’s light execution. Even the moments of pathos – such as the rare occasions in which Charles and Ruth reconcile their feelings – aren’t too heavy, packaging the feature as an ideal rainy day (or snowy, as per the current forecast) movie. In addition to Stevens’s showcase, Fisher and Mann relish the time to have fun with the high-concept premise. Credit should go to Hall for not making the theatrical origins too evident either as he moves around multiple visually appealing sets with active camerawork.
Blithe Spirit, however, is a film that makes the audience smile more than actually laugh. There’s little in the way of memorable sight gags, and the original manuscript was reworked with modern British humour to mixed results, despite the best attempt of three writers. Whilst it is almost immediately forgettable – this reviewer is struggling to recall any highlights within a few hours after viewing – the undemanding, low-stakes fun suffices as a tonic to brighten one’s mood, which everyone can benefit from during this lockdown period.
Blithe Spirit is released digitally on demand on 15th January 2021.
Watch the trailer for Blithe Spirit here: