Review: Why revive Noël Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’? Why, indeed

Dan Stevens gazes at Isla Fisher in the movie "Blithe Spirit."
Dan Stevens and Isla Fisher in the movie “Blithe Spirit.”
(Rob Youngson / IFC Films)

Noël Coward’s 1941 play “Blithe Spirit” is classic material: a screwball comedy about a mystery novelist with writer’s block who is haunted by his late first wife after she is inadvertently summoned by a medium. The play has been staged numerous times on the West End and on Broadway since its debut, filmed as a movie starring Rex Harrison in 1945 and adapted into a musical, “High Spirits,” in 1964. 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 high jinks 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 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 Condomines’ home. The interiors have been painted mint green, royal blue and cotton-candy pink and 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. Though effervescent, it’s a bit too ethereal for its own good.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Blithe Spirit’

Rated: PG-13, for suggestive references and some drug material

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 19, Cinelounge Drive-in, Hollywood, and in limited release where theaters are open; also on digital and VOD