This new production of BLITHE SPIRIT (2021) opens on a setting that will look awfully familiar to viewers of AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT (1989-2013), with the iconic house serving as the home of Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) and his second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) having appeared in several episodes of the celebrated detective series. Unfortunately, unlike the Grade II listed manor Joldwynds, Noël Coward’s acidly witty play has been subjected to some very unsympathetic renovations which are entirely out of keeping with the style or the original.
In the late 1930s, socialite and celebrated novelist Charles Condomine is suffering from writer’s block, struggling with a commission to write a screenplay for his movie producer father-in-law. In a desperate attempt to find some inspiration, he commissions a séance at his house, presided over by the imperious Madame Arcarti (Judi Dench). Although the spiritualist evening seems to be something of a bust, it does conjure the spirit of Charles’ first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann), to whom Charles remarriage is something of a vexation. Hilarity ensues.
Or, at least, it should but there’s something about this adaptation that feels decidedly flat, like a fine vintage champagne which has been left open and lost all its fizz. Occasionally it amuses, but it’s never flat-out funny despite Leslie Mann’s staging an almost heroic one-woman battle to inject the piece with some life – an irony considering she’s playing the deceased.
Not that Dan Stevens and Isla Fisher don’t try hard, they do. As do Julian Rhind-Tutt and Emilia Fox as Charles’ friend – and medicinal narcotic supplier – Doctor Bradman and his wife, but they’re trapped in a screenplay which seems to have been exorcised of the arch wit of the original and possessed by the spirit of a milquetoast 1970s tv sitcom farce and seemingly being asked for the most mannered performances possible. Even Judi Dench, completely a cheque-cashing trilogy of performances after CATS (2019) and ARTEMIS FOWL (2020) can’t seem to summon up much enthusiasm for the role of Madame Arcarti – a role made larger than life itself by Margaret Rutherford in the rightly celebrated 1945 David Lean film.
Coward’s characters in BLITHE SPIRIT are meant to be deeply unlikeable but here they come off as just plain annoying and the film takes a singular joke from its heady concept and flogs it to death: the idea that only Charles can see his ghostly paramour so when he talks to her other characters believe he is talking to them. The most notable changes to the original text, though, come towards the denouement where, building upon the change from novelist to screenwriter, Charles’ Hollywood dreams come to a dramatic end as BLITHE SPIRIT veers into THE FIRST WIVES CLUB (1996) territory.
Director Edward Hall, making his feature debut after a solid career in TV which includes the likes of DOWNTON ABBEY (2010-2015), SPOOKS (2002-2011) and THE DURRELLS (2016-2019) doesn’t quite make the leap to cinema successfully and there’s a very flat, televisual feel to both the lighting and cinematography, further inhibiting the energy of a work that’s trying desperately to escape its static origins as a stage play. It’s a shame, too, as aside from the flaccid script (Doctor Bradman may have something to help with that) and lackluster direction, the sets, locations and costumes are delightfully bright, colorful and energetic – perhaps an overcompensation for the goings-on in the foreground.
Elegantly cast and handsomely appointed, it’s a shame this BLITHE SPIRIT shows little of either quality.