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‘Blithe Spirit’ a spirited adaptation

February 22, 2021
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There’s a certain amount of pressure that comes with reimagining a beloved classic. Not only are you expected to do right by the extant fans of the work, but you must also find a way to update and accelerate the work so that it might find purchase with those who have no connection to the source material.

It’s a highwire act that many filmmakers have tried to navigate. Many have tried … and many have failed. Of particular note is the attempt to revisit a work that has already engaged in a shift from stage to screen. At that point, you’re dealing not just with a play that needs to be adapted, but a preexisting film version as well – doubly difficult.

It’s a difficulty that crops up from time to time in “Blithe Spirit,” the latest attempt to bring that classic Noel Coward play to life on the big screen. It’s directed by Edward Hall, with three credited screenwriters on the adaptation in Nick Moorcraft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth, and features a star-studded cast that includes the likes of Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann and the immortal Judi Dench.

It’s a perfectly fine film. Better than I expected actually, though ultimately, it doesn’t live up to its pedigree either in terms of source material or of ensemble. Some of the subtler aspects are lost in the transition to film, but it must be said that the story benefits greatly from the ability to more fully utilize the setting (or settings). Not as great as it could have been, but maybe not as bad as some would have you believe, either.

The year is 1937. Award-winning crime novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens, “The Rental”) has been enlisted to adapt one of his books into a screenplay, largely at the behest of the movie mogul father of his wife Ruth (Isla Fisher, “Godmothered”). Charles and Ruth have been married for five years; from the outside, they appear to have it all, but there is definitely some trouble in paradise.

Struggling with writer’s block (and perhaps pining for the memory of his deceased first wife), Charles decides that he needs some outside inspiration. Accompanied by their good friends the Bradmans – George (Julian Rhind-Tutt, TV’s “Britannia”) and Violet (Emilia Fox, TV’s “Silent Witness”) – the Condomines head to the theater to watch a performance by the celebrated spiritualist and medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench, “Artemis Fowl”).

After a disastrous stage mishap leads to cries of fraud, Charles asks Arcati to join them at his home for a séance in which they might attempt to contact the spirits of the dead. What Charles hopes is that he can get a closer look at some of the tricks of the trade with regard to spiritualism, as better to inform the story that he is working on.

What he gets is, well … considerably more than that.

Far from being a fraud, Madame Arcati manages to invoke an actual spirit. And not just any spirit – the ghost of Charles’s first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann, “The Croods: A New Age”). As you might imagine, the presence of Elvira causes some consternation for Charles, not least because he’s the only one who can see her.

Conflicts arise and grow as the jealous and possessive Elvira and the confused and concerned Ruth vie for the full attention of the man they both call husband. And Charles, trapped in the middle, isn’t quite sure what to do. If he can’t figure out what to do about Elvira, he might wind up committed to an asylum or worse. But the only one who can help them is Madame Arcati, who has plenty of concerns of her own. It’s all going to end in tears, for sure – but whose?

Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that “Blithe Spirit” is a perfect adaptation. There are some obvious issues here. But I will confess to being predisposed to be more forgiving of this film due to an affinity for both stage-to-screen adaptations and this particularly delightful Noel Coward work. Imperfect, sure, but there is value here.

There’s the setting, for example. Director Hall makes sure to take full advantage of the flexibility that the change in medium gives him. Rather then being confined to a single drawing room, we venture all over the English countryside. We get to experience the oddly vivid colors of the interior of the Condomine home, yes, but we also get to take to the road. We see grand opera houses and meticulous gardens. We hit the tennis courts and walk in the woods. This is one of the primary joys of cinematic adaptation, this growing of the world.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, some of the screwball sensibility is lost in translation. It’s difficult to articulate just why it doesn’t fully work – talentwise, the actors are all more than up to the challenge – but the energy never quite reaches the point it needs to. And without that madcap energy, some of the subtler laughs fade to the back. The slapstick moments – those work quite well. That said, if you’re focusing on the physical comedy in a Noel Coward story, then something has gone awry somewhere along the way.

The cast is solid. Dan Stevens and Isla Fisher are a striking pair; the two feel very much at home in a story set in this era. They have an old Hollywood vibe that is quite appealing. Leslie Mann leans into the idea of Elvira as chaos agent, capturing the character’s obvious glee at the havoc she is wreaking. And Dame Judi is exquisite as always, capturing the half-confident/half-confidence artist vibe of the character.

“Blithe Spirit” isn’t the best stage-to-screen adaptation you’ll see. A considerable amount of Coward’s wit – the key to the play’s brilliance – is lost in translation. There are laughs to be had, just fewer than you might hope. Still, it’s a lovely film to look at and the performers are definitely going for it in a big way. Purists may balk, but honestly, you could do worse.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 22 February 2021 14:16

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