February 18th, 2021
MOVIE: BLITHE SPIRIT
STARRING: DAN STEVENS, ISLA FISHER, LESLIE MANN, JUDI DENCH
DIRECTED BY: EDWARD HALL
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 2 STARS (Out of 4)
It’s never a bad time for a slapstick affair, a fun romp filled with ghosts and lovers, set in the 1930’s, with plenty of laughs. Blithe Spirit, a new production of the Noel Coward play, has been done before (directed by David Lean in 1945), but the hope is that a fresh cast of actors can bring things back from the dead. Dan Stevens stars as writer Charles Condomine, who’s fighting his writer’s block, trying to adapt one of his famous novels into the script for the next Alfred Hitchcock movie. His wife is Ruth (Isla Fisher), a fancy socialite, the daughter of a studio executive, with hopes of helping Charles get himself in the door. The two live a lavish lifestyle in the hills of England, but things have been lacking in the bedroom, and Charles hopes to get out of his funk. He tries to dig into his psyche with the help of Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), a medium that he uses for inspiration, but instead a seance conjures up the spirit of his dead wife Evira (Leslie Mann). This makes a wild love triangle between a married couple and a ghost, but instead of things being funny and flighty, the events become tedious and repetitive. Blithe Spirit has the right spirit at heart, but fails to conjure up any laughs, from beginning to end.
While watching, I could not help but view actor Dan Stevens as a new, modern-day version of Carey Elwes, and his performance here even reminded me of Westley in The Princess Bride. It’s sad though, because everything else around Stevens fails him at nearly every turn. Instead of Blithe Spirit being a silly affair, it becomes a painful task to get through. His character is a man lacking in confidence, a thin mustache, drinking whiskey, and keeping away from others in the guest house to write. Fisher plays the confident wife, willing to nurture her husband’s antics if it means results, that is, until his past comes back to complicate things. They attend the stage show Madame Arcati, which goes terribly wrong, and in her desperation the Madame agrees to do the seance for Charles’ pleasure. But this time everything works and when Elvira comes back, things become even more complicated.
One of the interesting facts about Blithe Spirit is how much it repeats itself after Mann’s Elvira character arrives. It’s revealed midway through, that before she passed away, it was she who was “ghost writing” for Charles, and now that she’s back, Charles has regained his “inspiration”. Of course, now everyone around him thinks he’s crazy. Talking to himself, telling Ruth that Elvira is the one causing all the problems, and risking being put into an asylum for believing his dead wife could return at all. Writing that concept on paper is typically something that can work in movies, whether it’s Jimmy Stewart talking to his imaginary bunny Harvey, Carl Reiner switching Steve Martin with Lily Tomlin in All of Me, or even a growth spurt for Tom Hanks in Big. That is the kind of fun I was hoping to get from Blithe Spirit, instead I rarely laughed, and was ready for it to end.
The problem’s not entirely on the cast. Leslie Mann is stepping outside her comfort zone and succeeds up to a point. She’s the only character that seems to enjoy the menace she creates. The direction however feels stale for something that wants to be fresh, lacking in texture to the sets, the costumes are standard, and the designs are void of light for being big. TV regular Edward Hall is behind the camera, bringing his flare for working on a show such as Downton Abbey, while the adaptation by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, and Nick Moorcroft is blatantly three different approaches rolled into one. Blithe Spirit is not having enough fun and also wears out its welcome long before it all resolves itself.
And I don’t want a movie such as Blithe Spirit to be a failure. There’s obviously a spirit for classic cinema from the production, including Judi Dench who is having a bit of fun, being the medium constantly trying to make her magic work, but that’s barely enough. I wanted to laugh more, I wanted to enjoy an old Hollywood romp, and I wanted to leave with a smile. Instead I think Blithe Spirit would have been better off left for the afterlife.
BLITHE SPIRIT IS PLAYING IN SELECT THEATERS THIS WEEKEND AND AVAILABLE ON DEMAND
Written by: Leo Brady