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REVIEW – “Blithe Spirit”: Introducing a New Generation to Coward, with Mixed Results

Director Edward Hall’s Blithe Spirit may only be the second formal film adaptation of a notably memorable Noël Coward play. And yet to the uninitiated eye, it’s clearly an experience whose first impression will fly over more heads than hit them with its otherwise quizzical level of old-school humor. Hall (I and You) is no David Lean, his directorial pedigree pale by comparison, and that certainly shows as we aim a little bit more on the mythological than Coward may have aimed for. Yes, there’s a sense of the supernatural in the original manuscript. But a touch too much of that when it outweighs the comical side, laziness settles in, and the scales lose balance. After half an hour or so, that balance completely gives out.

Spirit opens in late-30s pre-war London, with author Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) stuck at the writing desk, crippled by two distractions working to knock him down. One’s a sense of writer’s block while crafting his latest page-turner. Something his wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) recognizes is plaguing his mind. In an attempt to revive his creative muscles, the pair attend a performance from the mysterious Madame Arcati (Judi Dench). Amused by her magic quirks, and more suspiciously, the secrets to her act, Charles and Ruth approach the above-amateur medium about a private séance. Hesitantly, she agrees, both parties unaware of what the consequences will be.

Energy is certainly an important factor in this new spin of an aged written favorite. Too much of it is spent establishing the tone and readying the leads’ flexibility to tackle an objective. And in their case, it’s the sudden reemergence of Charles’ other distraction. The haunting memory of his long-dead ex, Elvira (Leslie Mann) is merely one among the wild manifestations Arcati conjures up. How we get there may not be so much Coward’s prose, and more of credited scribes Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, and Nick Moorcroft taking a handful of liberties in loosely, though not so subtly, modernizing the plot. It may be set in the 30s, but for all we know the level of spectacle often borders on mirroring what Peter Jackson accomplished in The Frighteners, minus an overwhelming use of poorly aged visual effects.

While the story abruptly loses aim, the cast tends to overcompensate with mixed results. Spirit is quite the showcase for Stevens, who’s an unending ball of surprise and anxiety. His character is in a difficult period of adapting one of his prior novels to the screen as a favor to Ruth’s father Henry (Simon Kunz). But nothing seems to come to fruition, his sexual frustration hits the point where questionable drugs are considered. And two great distractions are of little help. Charles is a man forever disturbed by the shortcomings of his past, and Elvira reappears almost by will of fate to manifest the gall to let go.

His unsatisfied man schtick is evidently underdeveloped, slowly thinning out by the time he and Elvira regain a familiar spark considered to be lost by time where both creativity and romance heighten. Stevens and Mann possess some acceptable chemistry, that goes without saying. If that weren’t existent, this film really would’ve bombed by the first act. The wattage they build, while a cautious Fisher stands in the shadows, is certainly admirable, lending to Hall’s purveyance for dramatic tension, while also honoring Coward’s penchant for the silly. Dench’s performance may perhaps be the best surprise; even at 86, she has not lost her bite. And while the plot struggles to maintain a sense of self, she courageously loses herself in the role with a wild forthrightness.

The disconnect in this adaptation is a bit more noticeable than any manner of faithfulness to the play or to the 1945 feature. Much of its comic energy is burned off on elevating the back and forth between Charles and Elvira off the written page where it would’ve reluctantly languished. Not much is left to keep the other two-thirds as elastic and lively. A mild shame, where Hall cannot make heads or tails of the material presented, aside from the supernatural angle, the barn-burning filmmakers impatient with bated breath, and the flapping romance element.

But it feels no less deft where it needs to be, the level of visual and technical proficiency reaching rather cozy marks of excellence. Between Charlotte Walter’s (Misbehaviour) spectacular costume design, and production designer John Paul Kelly’s (The Theory of Everything) mild attention to detail for both set pieces and elaborate stage lighting, period accuracy is never in short supply, often leaning too heavily. All while cinematographer Ed Wild’s (London Has Fallen) wayward point and shoot approach toward making a patchwork scrapbook out of present-day London.

From its middling start to an outlandish ending, Blithe Spirit really prides itself in being a potentially worthwhile comedy running on strained energy and overclocked excess. Where the former lags with making Coward accessible to a fresh generation of moviegoers, Hall and company hit the ground running, overdoing every moment with no shame. That level of passionate attention does not translate to an effective story, whose humor lacks overall punch. Perhaps Lean had a finer grip on that. Hall’s aim looks to be deeper on the emotion, which can only carry him so far, until it falls apart. Before then, at least this is a film worthy of delivery a few gentle yuks and some palpable relationship quirks, and not so much of my attention in the future. (C; 3/5 Horns Up!)

Blithe Spirit will be available in virtual cinemas and most VOD retailers February 19; you may support the distributor directly by watching via the IFC Center virtual platform; rated PG-13 for suggestive references and some drug material; 95 minutes.