Monday, September 27, 2021

Blithe Spirit, Remade Again

Everyone loves a good haunted marriage, especially when the living spouse has subsequently remarried, like in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the highest grossing Brazilian film for decades (spawning the American remake, Kiss Me Goodbye). Noel Coward got there first, scoring a West End hit that became a classic David Lean film, before morphing into the moderately successful Broadway musical, High Spirits. Nobody sings “You’d Better Love Me” or any of those forgotten Broadway tunes, but the is plenty of old-fashioned farce in Edward Hall’s remake of Blithe Spirit, which releases tomorrow on DVD.

Charles Condomine is a slightly Bertie Wooster-ish mystery novelist, who still misses his late wife Elvira, even though he remarried the well-heeled Ruth, whose producer father is impatiently awaiting Condomine’s first screenplay. We soon learn he has not written a word since Elvira died, because she came up with all the best parts of his novels, like the plots, characters, and dialogue.

Condomine hatches an idea to break his writer’s block by hiring the discredited psychic Madame Arcati to conduct a séance in his home. It works better than he ever could have hoped when she inadvertently summons the spirit of the first Ms. Condomine, who is highly jealous of the second—so much so, she might take matters into her own spectral hands.

Blithe Spirit does not exactly reflect Coward’s dry-martini wit, but it is a lightweight puff of door-slamming slapstick. A writer like Sir Julian Fellowes might have better channeled Coward’s urbane sophistication, but at least screenwriters Nick Moorcraft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth (there are three of them to adapt one play) capture the boozy upper-crust vibe.

Dan Stevens (from
Downton Abbey) gamely steps into Coward’s shoes, playing Condomine as a bit of a twit, a bit of a cad, and a bit of a sad sack out of his depth. Leslie Mann entertainingly vamps it up as Elvira (now that’s is a name to live up to). Isla Fisher also does yeoman work to lighten up the less free-wheeling Ruth Condomine. However, the great Dame Judi Dench seems oddly restrained playing Madame Arcati (the role originated by Margaret Rutherford).

Hall (who helmed a few
Downton episodes, after Cousin Matthew’s exit) keeps the cast on their toes, but he also has them constantly mugging for a laugh. The striking Joldwynds modernist house also provides a pleasingly cinematic backdrop. However, efforts to add a contemporary sensibility just end up diluting the throwback humor. It is a bit of a mish-mash, but it is harmless. Not really recommended, but it can kill some time without exertion, the latest Blithe Spirit releases tomorrow (9/28) on DVD.