Movie Review: ‘Blithe Spirit’

Greetings again from the darkness. Contrary to what one might assume, bringing entertaining, silly slapstick comedy to the screen is actually quite difficult. This is director Edward Hall’s first feature film, as his career has been mostly in TV series work and on stage. That stage work is likely what attracted him to this long-time favorite from Noel Coward. Adding to the difficulty is that Coward’s work was previously brought to the screen by legendary director David Lean in 1945, in a project that featured Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, and Margaret Rutherford. Lean’s film won an Oscar for Special Effects.

Director Hall is working with a script adapted from Coward’s play by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, and Nick Moorcroft. Rather than embrace the witty dialogue of a sophisticated upper class screwball comedy, this one seems committed to a level of silliness that intentionally overshadows the supernatural story line. It’s 1937 England where we first meet crime novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) in an angry, whisky-laced state of writer’s block. He’s trying to adapt his own novel into his first screenplay, and the pressure is mounting since the movie’s Producer is also his father-in-law. Charles’ second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) enjoys her life of luxury and can’t understand why her successful husband can’t do it (in more ways than one).

Date night at the theatre inspires Charles to invite the spiritualist medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) to their house to conduct a séance. This despite Madame Arcati being exposed as a fraud. He’s simply desperate to break his writer’s block. The story takes a turn when the séance conjures Charles’ first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann). However, he’s the only one who can see her, and neither Elvira nor Ruth are pleased with the presence of the other. On the bright side, Elvira assists Charles with his writing – it turns out she was long his muse (and maybe more).

Leslie Mann and Isla Fisher are two of the most talented comic actresses working today, but even they can’t save this nonsensical barrage of motion. Judi Dench is an Oscar winner, and at 86 years old, she still excels at working a scene. On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Stevens has neither the charm nor the comedic chops to pull off the Charles character as written. And it does seem the script, and the approach to the material, is what turns this into a vacuous affair, seemingly devoid of any cleverness save what the trio of talented actresses deliver. There are plenty of movies that deal with life after death in various ways, but whether serious or farcical, the best are entertaining. Unfortunately, this one has little to offer, and actually turns from not very funny to downright mean by the end.

Opening in theaters and VOD on February 19, 2021

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