Blithe Spirit (12A)

Isla Fisher, Judi Dench and Dan Stevens in Blithe Spirit

Isla Fisher, Judi Dench and Dan Stevens in Blithe Spirit - Credit: Sky Cinema

Directed by Edward Hall. Starring Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Emila Fox and Judi Dench. In cinema and Sky Cinema from January 15th. Running time: 94 mins. 

Not ten minutes before this started I was thinking how long it had been since I heard anyone being called a "blithering idiot," and with perfect serendipity, that's the first line out of Dan Stevens' mouth.

So it's got that going for it, but it's all downhill from there for former Hampstead Theatre director Edward Hall's version of Noel Cowards' 1941 play in which writer Charles Condomine's (Stevens) marriage to Ruth (Fisher) is disrupted when a séance inadvertently brings his late wife Elvira (Mann) back from the afterlife.

Judi Dench in Blithe Spirit

Judi Dench in Blithe Spirit a Sky Original film, only on Sky Cinema from 15th January - Credit: Sky Cinema

Obviously, the first thing one does when adapting a play by Coward is to get rid of most of that disagreeable Noel Coward stuff. Even unencumbered with knowledge of the play, or the David Lean directed 1945 film version, as soon as Charles' penile dysfunction becomes a topic of discussion and his doctor (Rhind-Tutt) prescribes a dose of amphetamine ("enhances cheerfulness”) my professional antennae detected that we may have strayed into the realms of up-dating.

The three screenwriters Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard and Nick Moorcroft, who previously combined on Fisherman's Friend, have done a thorough renovation on the old property, chucking out most of the dialogue, rearranging the plot and adding in moments of Rentaghost style slapstick.


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Yet, having taken all these liberties, they have kept the period setting, which is surely more bother than it's worth. Coward's dark humour could sit easily in the modern-day. There isn't a single sympathetic character here and in the Lean film (which I watched straight after to find out what this was supposed to be) their cold-hearted selfishness and cavalier attitude to life and death are quite bracing.

They're unpleasant but charismatic. But everybody in this version is an empty-headed ninny, the kind of broad farce characters who shouldn't be exposed to anything more onerous than mistaken identities, hiding in cupboards or dropping trousers. The British film industry has a craving for these kinds of affectionate desecrations, assembling first-rate casts to tackle classic comedies, and then messing them about till all the fun has been taken out. Oh yes, Mr Wilde and Mr Coward, you may have been quite the wit back then, but the 21st century will wipe the smile off your faces.  2/4 stars

Go to http://www.halfmanhalfcritic.com/ for Criterion collection reviews of The Tin Drum and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.

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