“Blithe Spirit” – Not too blithe and definitely no spirit [MOVIE REVIEW]

Judi Dench as “Madame Arcati”, Dan Stevens as “Charles Condomine”, Isla Fisher as “Ruth Condomine”, and Julian Rhind Tutt as ‘Dr Bradman’ in Edward Hall’s BLITHE SPIRIT. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

“Blithe Spirit,” the heavy handed remake of Noël Coward’s frothy bonbon is almost inexplicably awful. This will be short and definitely not sweet.

Allegedly this is a refresh of a theater classic that has been given successful film and television adaptations on six different occasions, beginning with the first in 1945, directed by David Lean (“Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia”) and starring no less than Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford. Instead, this new production is a major misfire.

In its original inception, novelist Charles Condomine, a recently remarried widower, invites the local eccentric Madame Arcati, a self-proclaimed medium, to be the centerpiece of a sniggering cocktail party where she will hold a séance. He is doing research for his latest book and he would like to observe her “technique.” But the séance actually succeeds, and Madam Arcati, unbeknownst to her, has summoned Charles’ first wife Elvira, seen only by him. She creates havoc. His reactions and conversations with Elvira begin to upend his marriage to new wife Ruth, and the household is in turmoil. Desperate, he reaches out again to Madame Arcati who is more than thrilled to learn that a ghost was conjured (this was definitely a first). She brought Elvira back into his life and now she must remove her. Easier said than done.

This is still the basic framework. Charles is still novelist, albeit blocked, who cannot seem to finish the screenplay based on one of his books and commissioned by his father-in-law, an important film producer. He is no longer working on all cylinders, so to speak, and wife Ruth is bored, dismayed, and less than pleased. Madame Arcati is a medium working the vaudeville circuit, recently exposed as a fraud. Charles invites her to the house for a cocktail party so he can pump her for information for his book. She conducts a séance and Elvira, the dead wife, appears and all hell breaks loose.

Adding embellishments and changing character traits everywhere has not helped update this play. Noël Coward originally wrote a classic farce dependent on timing. Instead of doors opening and closing, he wrote an invisible character appearing and disappearing, with the main character, Charles, carrying on conversations with the ghost while others looked on in dismay and amazement. The dialogue was clever, quick, frothy, and incisive. Madame Arcati was scattered, over-the-top and unbelievable to all but herself. In short, she is a truly hilarious creation, memorable to anyone who has ever experienced the play or previous film incarnations.

Leslie Mann as “Elvira Condomine” and Dan Stevens as “Charles Condomine” in Edward Hall’s BLITHE SPIRIT. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

The filmmakers state that “Blithe Spirit” needed an updating. They didn’t want to make a period piece and needed to keep it relevant to a modern audience. Huh? It’s still set in the 30s and the only modernization was to change Coward’s quick, witty, and pungent dialogue into something lacking rhythm, humor, style, or pace. That Edward Hall, a former artistic director of the Hampstead Theatre, believed he could improve upon Noël Coward or David Lean is remarkable. Worse though, because a film is only as good as its screenplay, was that inexperienced writers Nick Moorcroft and Meg Leonard felt prepared to “update” Noël Coward. This is one of the only laughable aspects of the film. In a perplexing contradiction, they wanted a modern feel but kept it in the 1930s. If Coward were alive today, he would demand that his name be removed from this production.

This is not to say that Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” is au courant. It can be very creaky and dated and is best played for what it was originally designed. With the right actors, it can still entertain as originally written. Most recently, Angela Lansbury at the age of 90 was a very effective and successful Madam Arcati, both on Broadway and on tour. Coward is best played as written, especially if you don’t know how to write. “Blithe Spirit,” like the recent productions of his “Present Laughter,” are funny, poignant, and sad, all at the same time, showing that in what counts, Coward still does. This new production is none of those things, although one could add that it is successfully mean-spirited.

The fault doesn’t lie with the actors, all of whom try very hard. What is remarkable is how one production alone could waste the talents of Dan Stevens (Charles), Isla Fisher (Ruth), Leslie Mann (a somewhat miscast Elvira), and Judi Dench (Madame Arcati). Dench who may be better known for her dramatic work is a skilled comedienne but you’d never know it from this.

Despite everything, however, I did find something to appreciate. I loved the color palette and production design. I would kill for any of the furniture found in the Condomine mansion. But furnishings do not a movie make.

Opening February 19 at the Cinelounge Drive-In Hollywood and On Demand.

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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