Photo | Searchlight Pictures
“Blithe Spirit” is a serviceable but extremely lightweight flight of fancy about a writer, his late wife, Elvira, and his new wife, and the misadventures they share when Elvira’s jealous ghost appears and wants her life back. Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is charming as Charles, the husband caught between his two wives — Isla Fisher as the living one, Ruth, and Leslie Mann as the ghost. The film was pleasant enough to look at, but now that it’s over, I’m perplexed as to how or why anyone made it in the first place.
Adapted from Noël Coward’s 1941 play, this version is set in the past and is in some ways stuck in it. A perennially popular stage play, it was already adapted into a film once, shortly after it was written, in 1945, starring Rex Harrison. I think we can safely assume most contemporary audiences aren’t struggling under the burden of expectation from having seen that one. But even if you aren’t familiar with its previous incarnations from stage or screen, there is an undeniable sense of retread in this version.
Stevens does funny work, blinking and goggling his blue eyes as he battles writers’ block, sexual dysfunction, his influential father-in-law and the ghost of his dead wife. Mann is inadvertently summoned by none other than Judi Dench, who is playing Madame Arcati, a fake spiritual medium whose first success in contacting the afterlife results in Elvira returning to a changed home and a romantic rival in the form of Ruth.
We know from the beginning Charles is pining for his late wife, and the professional contacts in the film business that his new wife represents might have played a role in that marriage. Ruth’s father has given Charles a chance to adapt his popular crime novels into a screenplay, but Charles is having trouble performing without his muse, Elvira. When she returns, she gives him plenty of grief but also his best ideas, and for a while, the former couple is happy with their unusual arrangement.
Ruth, however, is less enthusiastic about sharing her husband with the ghost of his first wife, and the unreliable Madame Arcati is sought to undo her surprisingly effective venture into the realm of the afterlife. Wacky shenanigans set to jazz music follow, and the sense of humor behind them could be described as “old-timey.” It’s pretty corny to show a character arguing with another character only he can see, resulting in outlandish misunderstandings.
Elvira is the best character, but Mann’s wasn’t the best performance. I found myself wondering if maybe Mann and Fisher should have switched characters since the living wife is kind of the straight woman compared to the remorselessly vengeful Elvira. Fisher has shown us some memorably unhinged female characters in the past, while Mann struck me as somewhat one-note and out of her depth (and this film was none too deep).
Even in the film’s lamest moments, everyone looked fabulous. The costumes are splendid and the English homes in which most of the action takes place are colorful and gorgeous. As I cynically dismissed the old-fashioned appeal of “Blithe Spirit,” my teenage daughter walked in and immediately wanted to know what the movie was due to its great blue kitchen and fancy ladies. This little flick might not hold up to a strict critical evaluation, but as a minor diversion, it might just do the trick.
“Blithe Spirit” is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
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