Film Review: Blithe Spirit (2020)

Despite a talented cast including Judi Dench and Dan Stevens, this cinematic version of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit is a big miss

“I’ll have a grilled grapefruit and a strong coffee please”

On the one hand, I knew I wouldn’t enjoy Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward’s enduring play offering increasingly diminishing returns every time it reappears. On the other, I don’t think anyone would have predicted how misjudged this film version would be, directed by Ed Hall and adapted for the screen by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft.

Coward’s plays do what they do, offering safe options for audiences (and theatre programmers) and usually attracting top actors (Jennifer Saunders and Angela Lansbury are the last two to have starred in the West End in this play). And on the face of it, the same ought to be true of a filmed version, here with Dame Judi Dench stepping into the feathered caftan of Madame Arcati.

But something has gone fatally wrong in the translation. Some serious tinkering with the script absolutely butchers Coward’s intent and more crucially, adds nothing of value to the story being told, as author Charles Condomine ends up accidentally summoning the ghost of his late first wife whilst trying to come up with a screenplay.

More heinously, Hall’s direction pushes the role of Madame Arcati into baffingly dour territory, meaning Dench has little opportunity to use her comic sparkle and instead is lumbered with a backstory that is aimed to bring pathos but just makes you miss the pizzazz that underscores so many of her lines (of the character as originally written). 

Ultimately, you’re just left wondering what the point of this remake is. It doesn’t drag Coward into the 21st century (as if it could be done), it wastes its considerable talents (poor Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher and Leslie Mann) and for all its wholesale changes, they ultimately have little useful effect other than to sink everyone’s spirits.

Photo: Sky Cinema Original/StudioCanal

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