In this latest adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1941 play, Blithe Spirit, director Edward Hall presents audiences with a triangle of elements necessary to do justice to beloved source material. On each end, he’s written (in careful, mellifluous script) “a stellar cast,” “lively production design” and “a clear sense of purpose and verve.” In the middle of that shape, in red ink, “pick two.”

Following in the footsteps of David Lean’s 1945 adaptation, Hall and company keep their take period appropriate, but have minorly updated the premise. Mystery novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) still invites a medium (Judi Dench) into his home to perform a séance, but rather than needing new material for a book, it’s for a film adaptation of his own work financed by his father-in-law. His current wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) begrudgingly accepts Charles still being hung up on his deceased first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann), until that séance brings her back into their lives as an apparition only Charles can see and hear.

Coward’s original play holds up so well today because of the buoyant way he balances this farcical love triangle with a sort of slapstick comedy that comes from trying to act out ghost story gags on the stage, and the ensuing creativity necessary to sell that schtick to a live audience. This new adaptation has the luxury of modern special effects to give it a leg up over Lean’s version, but fails to breathe any real life into the proceedings.

Stevens, Fisher and Mann all exhibit clear chemistry with one another, so the latent potential to make this something special looms in the air throughout. That they exist against a lovely backdrop of sweet costumes, strong sets and a breezy aesthetic make this film feel like it ought to be an easy lay-up. But outside of introducing a subplot about Charles being a plagiarist leeching his ideas from his lovers, there’s nothing new here to warrant the film’s existence. It’s perfunctory to a fault, to the point that even its visual gags and some of the easy ghost humor fails to land or connect.

It’s a thorough waste of Stevens, an actor who, given nothing to do, seems to be providing a retread of his work as Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Fisher, sadly, is quite used to roles that can’t match her talent, so she goes through the motions with ease. But it’s Mann who seems the most misused, given her inconsistent accent work and feeling too modern to fit into this space, even as a paranormal presence.

This film having three (3) credited screenwriters to adapt such a straightforward play only to bring so little to the process is tragic, especially given how evergreen the source material is. But setting this version of Blithe Spirit in the present day would kill the ability to sell the film to the “Downton Abbey” crowd who long for the days where having a maid as a supporting character and filming in opulent (for the time) estates scratches a particular itch. This will work for anyone who pays for a subscription to Brit Box and few others, but hey, at least it looks pretty.

Summary
Following in the footsteps of David Lean’s 1945 adaptation, Hall and company keep their take period appropriate, but have minorly updated the premise.
48 %
Charmingly rote
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