“You’ve been commissioned to write a 90-page screenplay, not ‘War and Peace.’” With these airy words, in the opening minutes of “Blithe Spirit,” exasperated trophy wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) admonishes her first-time screenwriter husband Charles (Dan Stevens) as he twitchily battles writers’ block. Then she adds a kicker: “How can it be so difficult to adapt a story you’ve already written?” If her frustration with the whiny, self-absorbed Charles is hardly misplaced, her assumptions about screenwriting are nonetheless off-base. Penning a good, short, pithy screenplay is no easy feat, even when working from solidly proven source material — and one need look no further than “Blithe Spirit,” a tin-eared, lumpen-footed, almost perversely unfunny new spin on Noël Coward’s breezy 1940s farce, for proof.
Sputtering onto screens 75 years after David Lean’s original adaptation, TV director Edward Hall’s debut feature makes no compelling case for reviving this bauble, showing up the play’s most creakily dated elements whilst somehow eliding all of Coward’s suave verbal snap. What’s left is the material’s essential comic premise — a posh young widower, since remarried, is tormented by the ghost of his jealous first wife — and a primped-up Art Deco setting that it wears with all the authentic conviction of a last-minute Halloween costume.
Screenwriters Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth (previously responsible for “Fisherman’s Friends,” a limp 2017 Britcom that proved a domestic sleeper hit) have attempted to update proceedings with a toothless feminist revenge angle, the odd anachronistic mention of base chakras, and a scattering of dick jokes that Coward himself might have deemed a bit timid. IFC will release “Blithe Spirit” next month Stateside; on home turf, following a lengthy pandemic-induced delay, the film has been shuffled unceremoniously to the Sky Cinema streaming service. A small-screen transition feels more sympathetic to the film’s modest aims, though that still doesn’t flatter its glaringly overlit, ambience-free visual design.
Filling the elegant velvet slippers of Rex Harrison, Dan Stevens gives things the old Oxford college try as the hapless Charles, introduced at his typewriter in a state of frenzied creative panic: A wealthy author with a bestselling series of crime novels to his name, he’s hit a wall when commissioned by a Hollywood-headed producer to adapt one for the screen. Ruth, who just so happens to be the producer’s daughter, can’t understand the holdup; little does she know that Charles can barely write a word without Elvira (Leslie Mann), his late first wife and extremely influential muse. After watching a shambolic stage show by Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), a fraudulent but genuinely eccentric medium, he’s inspired to include a supernatural element in the script, and invites her to his palatial outer-London home for a private audience.
As bad luck would have it, the scatty psychic makes contact with the other side for the very first time, inadvertently summoning the spirit of Elvira — visible to Charles only, though quite capable of real-world havoc. None too pleased to discover her husband has moved on, she mischievously resolves to win him back, even if it kills him. Where Coward’s play built a slinky, arched-eyebrow love triangle from this ludicrous premise, Hall and his screenwriters are more interested in milking it for all the pratfalls it’s worth — which, by the fourth or fifth time we’ve recycled the tepid gag of Charles shrieking verbal abuse at a ghost no one else can see, isn’t an awful lot.
Though they all look catalog-splendid in Charlotte Walter’s box-fresh period duds, the stars seem entirely adrift under Hall’s airless, sitcom-style direction. Wisely not opting for a Rex Harrison impression, Stevens plays Charles as equal parts befuddled fop and Terry-Thomas cad: amusing in spots, yet in a comic register not quite compatible with Fisher’s daffy physical mugging and Mann’s sped-up femme-fatale sass.
Only Dench, with her usual dry twinkle, opts out of playing it broad — except that turns out to be exactly the wrong approach for Madame Arcati, usually the play’s most extravagantly absurd figure, here saddled with a new, half-baked subplot intended to lend her pointless emotional pathos. Like all the script’s adjustments to Coward’s play, it feels a faintly desperate imposition: A rushed final-act twist, meanwhile, ends up making even less sense of these quick-sketch relationships than before.
Quite who it’s all for is hard to say. Viewers even remotely near the age of the leads are liable to find “Blithe Spirit” quaint at best, while the senior “gray-pound” audience likely to turn up for Dench may have some lingering memory of the original, and is unlikely to find it an improvement. Who could? Urbanely performed and inventively shot, with Oscar-winning visual effects that actually trump the 21st-century film’s skimpy, inconsistent spectral forms, Lean’s film somehow feels altogether more modern than Hall’s effortful pantomime. “We have no reliable guarantee that the afterlife will be any less exasperating than this one, have we?” Coward once quipped. If nothing else, the new film proves him wrong: Wherever he is, one hopes he’s blissfully unaware of it.