There are six very worrying words on the poster for Blithe Spirit;
‘Based on Noel Coward’s classic comedy’.
The term ‘based on’ is fine when you are doing a total reinvention of a much beloved and known source as with Clueless or 10 Things I Hate About You, or even if you are playing with long established literary conventions like in Bridget Jones’s Diary (each being ‘based on’ Emma, The Taming of the Shrew and Pride & Prejudice respectively). When you have got a classic work by one of England’s most renowned comedy playwrights and all you are doing is rewriting it, not even modernising the story just adding some new elements and changing some of the dialogue, then it doesn’t promise good things. Simply stated, if you already have a perfect script by Noel Coward why, why, why would you play with it?
Still, that’s what Meg Leonard, Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft have done here and sure enough it adds too little and steals too much from its source material. Ashworth and Moorcroft are no novice screenwriters themselves. They’ve written a number of successful movies together but with the highest profile of these being the two noughties St. Trinian’s films I’m not quite sure what made them think that they were in a position to improve on the work of Noel Coward.
What they have succeeded in doing is removing every ounce of wit from the play about an author who stages a seance as research only to conjure up the ghost of his first wife, much to the dismay of his second. Even the passages they have retained are fumbled and too often they miss the important pay off line at the end of scenes. Their film truly is a masterclass in botched abridgement. What’s more, it isn’t as though we don’t already have a wonderful movie version of this play. The 1945 film, debuting only four years after the theatrical production that was still playing in some venues, is superior to this new movie in every conceivable way. There is also a lost 1956 TV version, one of several small screen adaptations, that starred Lauren Bacall and Claudette Colbert as the two spouses with the man being played by Coward himself, who also directed. Now that’s a production I’d love to see but the first one with Rex Harrison is a delight and renders any subsequent version unnecessary by itself.
The cast here are all good enough. Isla Fisher and Leslie Mann do well as Mrs and Mrs Condomine, and Dan Steven’s portrayal of their husband is engaging. He is not as deliciously objectionable and considerably more pathetic than Harrison’s portrayal but he has charm and is certainly sufficiently debonair. Only Judi Dench as the medium is a real disappointment when put up against her predecessor Margaret Rutherford. I mean Dench is fine but Rutherford really made the part her own and to play it differently just doesn’t work. I saw Angela Lansbury play the part on stage and by apparently channelling Rutherford, at least in part, she was more successful. Dench plays the part for sympathy and it diminishes the character.
This Blithe Spirit is directed by, son of Peter and half brother of Rebecca, Edward Hall who has done a lot of theatre and some television, including Downton Abbey and a few Christies. He ought to be a good choice for this but he can’t lift the weak script and as a result needs to saddle some blame.
If you have little else to do then you might find this film diverting but it does nothing to justify its existence. The introduction of a Hollywood element (it is a screenplay being researched here not a book) and some extra supernatural extra marital shenanigans just get in the way. Much like the first Mrs. Condemine, too much of the original dialogue is unsuccessfully exorcised and much like the second Mrs Condemine, the whole film is haunted by what preceded it.
I’ve got some other choice words for the poster if they need them.
The Ripley Factor:
Both of the main women in this story are formidable even in the original play. What has been dialled down is the casual chauvinism demonstrated by the husband. In the films he is remembered for, misogyny did seem to be a thing for Rex Harrison and it’s no bad thing that it’s gone.
This new film does write out the significant role in proceedings played by Edith the maid but with so much good stuff removed from the script I’m not sure I can condemn this as a sexist move.
Blithe Spirit is on Sky Movies and Now TV but go to YouTube for the other one instead.