Noel Coward’s 1941 play “Blithe Spirit” is classic material: a comic screwball play about a mystery novelist who is haunted by his ex-wife, summoned by a medium while trying to work through his writer’s block. The play has been staged numerous times on the West End and on Broadway since its debut, adapted to a musical (“High Spirits”) and filmed as a movie in 1945, starring Rex Harrison.
The ongoing revival continues with Edward Hall’s film version, starring Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher and Leslie Mann.
In this particular adaptation, the play has been given a Hollywood twist, with the novelist, Charles Condomine (Stevens), struggling to write the screenplay of one of his works for the producer father of his wife, Ruth (Fisher). When the couple attends the mystical show of Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), they find her to be a fraud, but Charles thinks observing the tricks of her trade might offer some inspiration for his writing. During the séance, Madame Arcati summons the spirit of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Mann), who perished in a riding accident.
That’s the setup, and high-spirited hijinks ensue as Elvira and Ruth enact their petty jealousies across the astral plane. Only Charles can see Elvira, though she proves her existence — and her mettle — pretty well despite her invisibility. She drives Charles mad with her ghoulish gags and persistent insistence on being seen by him, causing more than a few impolite embarrassments. It’s “Ghost” as a British comedy of manners, but instead of a grieving husband protecting his wife, the spirit is a vengeful socialite determined to get her due.
Stevens, Fisher and Mann are gifted comedians; these roles are something they could do in their sleep. Which is why it’s a bit disappointing that the film doesn’t push the material, or the performers, out of this fizzy, dizzy but somehow rather basic adaptation. Stevens can do “wild-eyed genius” in circles around any other actor, the same goes for Fisher and Mann’s bubbly charms. It’s just that we’ve all seen them do much more interesting, weird and fascinating performances, and nothing in Hall’s “Blithe Spirit” pushes them out of that comfort zone, nor does it truly push this well-known material (the script is by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft).
The outstanding star here is the jaw-dropping production design by John Paul Kelly. Joldwynds, a stunning white modernist home in Surrey, designed by Oliver Hill in 1932, serves as the location for the Condomines’ home. The interiors have been painted mint green, royal blue and cotton-candy pink, furnished with jewel-tone velvet pieces. It lends playfulness, wit and style to the film, and the sumptuous visuals, also enhanced by Charlotte Walter’s glorious 1937-era costumes, create the heightened reality in which this outrageous rom-com is set.
This “Blithe Spirit” tangles with issues of authorship and the muse, and who gets credit for what in art, a topic that has surfaced again and again recently, in films such as “The Wife” and “Malcolm & Marie,” though of course it’s been a thorny question since the days of Scott and Zelda (Fitzgerald). But any trenchant observations to be found in this “Blithe Spirit” only pop and fizz into thin air like champagne bubbles. Although effervescent, it’s a bit too ethereal for it’s own good.