An author with writer’s block is visited by the ghost of his dead wife Elvira, who is soon making second wife Ruth jealous.
I know I usually rail against the “pre-dead wife” trope, but with Noel Coward’s play I’ll allow it.
Sadly though, even with the reappearance of the gorgeous, ghostly Elvira (Leslie Mann) this Blithe Spirit doesn’t sparkle as it should, offering broad humour rather than piercing wit, and lacking real joi de vivre (or joi d’être mort?)
It’s not entirely soulless, despite the lacklustre script – and is almost saved by Mann, and the set decorator.
We are in England in 1937, and award-winning crime author Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) has writer’s block. All he’s managed to type so far is HELP, which rather gives the lie to my oft-given advice –whether you ask for it or not – that it’s always best to write something, anything, on a blank sheet of paper, as at least then you have something to work with.
It’s not the only part of Charles that’s blocked. “Big Ben’s stopped chiming,” he confides in his friend Dr Bradman later, who gives him some amphetamines to get things going again.
Charles is supposed to be adapting his own novel for the big screen, though this screenplay is muddled about his screenplay. Sometimes it’s about his existing fictional detective, at others it seems he’s meant to be coming up with a completely new story with a new hero.
Charles’s first wife Elvira died seven years previously, after falling off her horse. He’s been married to Ruth, daughter of a UK movie industry mogul, for five years, and it’s her father who is expecting Charles’s very late screenplay.
Elvira reappears on the scene after a seance with medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), who has just been outed at the local theatre for fakery.
Charles invites Arcati to his home in the hope that he will get useful material for his screenplay, though he, Ruth, and their friends mock her throughout. Afterwards the medium is convinced something did happen, but no one else is; later Charles goes downstairs and is surprised to find Elvira materialising there. She doesn’t know she’s dead, but is soon making jibes about Ruth’s rather arresting redecorating.
Ruth can’t see Elvira, but over the coming days quickly tires of the influence her dead predecessor is having on Charles; he and Elvira go out for drives, and lazy river trips where she rewrites his screenplay for him.
Madame Arcati doesn’t have the skills to send Elvira back when Ruth approaches her for help; though it becomes more urgent when Elvira discovers Charles sees no future for the two of them. First she wants him dead, then later demands a divorce.
This Blithe Spirit does stagger off into new territory, particularly towards the end, though in terms of sets and costumes it’s very firmly 1930s.
It’s intermittently amusing but never hilarious, as the living Mrs Condomine thinks Charles is talking to her when actually he’s talking to her dead counterpart. That’s really the only joke. Later, at Pinewood Studios visiting Ruth’s father, Charles and Elvira do pretty much the same thing to Googie Withers (ask your nan!) Hitchcock is there too – are they filming The Lady Vanishes?
I quite liked what led up to the ending (a change from the original), if not the ending itself; though much of the rest of the film is less like a zingy screwball paranormal comedy about an accidental menage-a-trois and more like a movie version of a 1980s BBC sitcom. (If you’re going to do that make it To The Manor Born, with Gillian Anderson and Tom Hardy.) Eventually I was half-expecting a slammed door to cause someone’s trousers to fall down.
Despite the film’s small scale, in terms of visuals it doesn’t feel quite as claustrophobic or stagy as the 1945 version, and the white modernist house, colourful rooms and vivid, often funky costumes are stunning. Unfortunately though the acting styles are frequently so overly-mannered it’s as if they’re trying to reach a sleeping audience member at the back of the theatre.
Ironically for someone playing a woman dead for seven years, Mann is a breath of fresh air. Blonde of hair and breathy of tone, she’s like a murderous Marilyn Monroe. What has she got to lose? You can only die once and she knows it.
Mme Arcati is the only character with a soul as she mourns her long-dead husband, and Dench is quite affecting as her own story unfolds. Despite her advanced years she’s still trying to salvage her reputation after trying to giver her audience what they wanted, as it’s the only way she can make a living. She has a dignity that the wealthy Condomines, living and dead, can never understand. (Maybe that undermines the film though – Coward said himself of his play that “you can’t sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story.”)
Isla Fisher does her best as Ruth. Charles is a self-obsessed wet blanket, and it’s a mystery why one woman would want to marry him let alone two. I like Dan Stevens a lot – he managed to be both charming, charismatic and deeply sexy in his spangles in last year’s delightfully daft Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga – but his Charles is just so irritating. And while one of the joys of the various iterations of Blithe Spirit is that everyone in that overcrowded marriage is awful, awful is not the same as irritating.
I watched the 1945 Blithe Spirit soon after finishing this one, and Rex Harrison’s meanly funny Charles runs rings around this one, though he’d probably do it languidly, while drinking a scotch, rather than while chasing his dead wife round the garden with a croquet mallet.
Note: there is a mid-credits voiceover scene.
Read my (very spoilery) article about the two films – The Blithe Spirit Remake And The Ghosts Of Movies Past