Welcome to cinema’s New Normal. While big blockbusters are optimistically waiting for us in the spring, the first quarter of the year is strategically filled with independent releases that have adopted a dual release format – in cinemas if we have them, on VOD if not. Produced by Sky, Blithe Spirit (starring Dame Judi Dench) was intended for cinemas before the most recent lockdown was announced, and under the current circumstances will air on Sky Movies and On Demand.
Dan Stevens stars as Charles Condomine, an award-winning novelist who is stuck on his new story, which surrounds the world of spiritualism. He hires eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Dench) to perform a séance in his home with his wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) and friends.
Initially intended as research to learn the mannerisms of a medium, Arcati unexpectedly summons the spirit of Charles’ late first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann), whom only Charles can see. As Elvira torments Charles and Ruth, the pair must find a way of sending her back to the afterlife before she takes them with her.
Taking us back to a time of elegance and frivolity, tis new adaptation of the Noel Coward play never once takes itself seriously. Deriving its humour from misunderstanding (usually Stevens angrily addressing Mann, to the confusion of those who can’t see her), director Edward Hall gives the right year old play energy and urgency.
This version tweaks certain aspects – Charles is far less sympathetic a character, with Stevens adding sneakiness to his performance. There’s also a subplot of Elvira being the true author of his work, an added reason for Charles to keep her around, but one that gives the final act a mean-spirited tone. The pratfalls and cutting asides are fun, but ultimately, it’s three people who don’t like each other squabbling and scheming to the film’s bouncy score.
While he is better known for dramatic roles, Stevens has shown himself to be a capable comedy talent in films like The Man Who Invented Christmas and last year’s Eurovision. Here, he swings for the fences with goofiness that just about fits within the heightened context of the story. Mann is spiteful from the beginning, making it hard to root for her ghostly plans, and the two struggle to create any real chemistry.
Of the ensemble, Isla Fisher and Judi Dench rise to the top. Fisher is able to balance silliness with elegance, seeming at home in a decadent period setting but still game to throw herself into a pool for laughs. Dench is criminally underused, relegated to a minor character with a few scattered scenes. However, her witty exchanges with the cast, particularly during the séance scene, show the quality that the filmmakers have side-lined.
Blithe Spirit is a fairly lightweight story, meaning this lightweight adaptation’s flaws don’t seem so obviously (particularly with the barely ninety-minute running time). Lovers of the 1945 David Lean version, however, won’t find anything to dislodge that title from their affections.
Blithe Spirit is available on Sky Movies and On Demand from Friday 15th January.