Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann and the great Judi Dench star in this update of the much loved 1940s play by Noël Coward
Originally premiering on the West End in 1941, Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit is one of the most revived comedy plays of all time and with a first film adaption made in 1945 by the great David Lean it’s been delighting audiences for nearly 80 years. Indeed had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic this film would have been released at the same time as a new West End revival starring the great Jennifer Saunders (which this writer has cancelled tickets to. *Sigh…*) A fresh adaption to bring this well worn story to a new audience seems a solid idea then.
Set in 1930s England Blithe Spirit follows Charles Condomine (played by Dan Stevens), a crime novelist who is struggling to finish his first screenplay. Desiring to incorporate a supernatural element into his story he hires disgraced medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) to perform a seance in his house, intending to use her as inspiration for one of his characters. It turns out Madame Arcati isn’t quite the fraud she seems as she succeeds in raising the spirit of Charles’ rather flamboyant and very dead first wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann). Elvira does not take too kindly to Charles’ uptight second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher), leading to lots of malicious hijinks as Charles now awkwardly finds himself in a love triangle with a pissed off ghost.
First things first, this adaption is only a glancing adaption of the original play. Whilst it uses a fair chunk of the plot it barely touches the original dialogue which seems a damn shame as Coward is the master of biting wit, his comedies feeling as fresh today as when they were written. There are also significant changes to the character of Madame Arcati to make her significantly less the ”mad old bat” and much more sympathetic and sentimental. Judi Dench brings her usual gravitas to what could have been a silly role but I do wish she’d been given the chance to exercise her very fine comedy chops.
But, enough about what it’s not. I’ve been a big fan of Dan Stevens post-Downton Abbey career with his excellent performances in 2014s The Guest and FX’s bonkers Legion highlighting his ability to play ”terrifyingly disturbed” extremely well. Blithe Spirit allows him to exercise this great propensity for madness again as his dead wife torments him, albeit in a much more charming and ’12A rating’ appropriate manner. Mann and Fisher both have strong comedy backgrounds and are pitch perfect polar opposites, breezing through the story both effortlessly and glamorously.
This version of Blithe Spirit is not exactly rolling in the aisles funny but does still succeed in being a very fun bit of entertainment. As light and pulpy as one of Charles’ own detective novels it doesn’t take itself too seriously, maintaining a quick pace and frothy dialogue. Combine this with some gorgeous costumes, beautiful Art Deco set design and some stunningly green English countryside and Blithe Spirit makes for a lovely bit of escapism on a grim winters day. It may not be a landmark production, but with an all-star cast frolicking through a silly plot I would categorise it as ”a very decent Sunday afternoon film.”