Movie Review: Cowardly “Blithe Spirit” never quite returns to life

Damn, blast and infernal curses. What have these well-meaning ninnies done to “Blithe Spirit?”

A game, sometimes arch cast and lush period design are wasted on a film that bears a faint resemblance to the play by Noel Coward.

Oh all right, more than a “faint resemblance.” The structure is roughly the same, and the characters are carried forth from the 1940s play, first put on film by David Lean. But those august names didn’t discourage British TV director Edward Hall (“Downton Abbey”) and three screenwriters from making a hash of things.

If you’re going to make it a period piece — And who doesn’t do that to “Blithe” these days?” — why bother wiping out Coward’s dialogue, resetting character motivations and only truly preserving the meanness?

“Downton” alum Dan Stevens is our blocked mystery novelist, Charles Condomine, in this version struggling with an empty typewriter page over adapting his first novel for the silver screen.

It’s 1937, and his producer/father-in-law (Simon Kunz) thinks “Hitchcock would be the perfect director” for it.

But Charles can’t get a handle on it, even though he’s adapting his own novel. Wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) tries to be understanding, but his tirades and drinking go on.

“Can I get you anything?”

“DIVINE intervention!”

Truth be told, he hasn’t written a word in years. It’s as if his first wife was his muse, and perky, bubbly Ruth is no substitute. He’s still being obsessed with Elvira, the first Mrs. Condomine. That’s even affecting his love life.

“Big Ben’s stopped chiming,” he gripes to his doctor-friend (Julian Rhind-Tutt). “It’s like playing billiards with a rope!”

Great joke…which George Burns told at 90.

At least the doctor can “fix” that. “Barbituates!”

“Is it habit-forming?” “Not in the least! I’ve been using them for years.”

Charles fumbles about for a hook, a way to give his unwritten script an added kick. A night at the theater watching swami, spiritualist and hustler Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) fake-levitate and try to convince the punters that she can “break through to the other side” and talk to the dead might help.

That’s a bust, so Charles invites her for a private seance, “just for research” he assures himself and everybody else. Imagine his shock when shortly after that humbug his late wife shows up, confused and annoyed at the changes to her house, and wearing the jodhpurs, boots and riding gloves she had on the last time they were together.

“Elvira, you’re dead” rattles her. But as she’s played by scary spitfire Leslie Mann, we know that won’t be the end of it. She teases and taunts him, calls him “an astral bigamist,” and as he’s the only one who sees her, arguing back just has everybody thinking he’s barking mad, as posh limeys are wont to say.

The supernatural stuff is old hat, the “writing a screenplay” business is leaned on entirely too heavily (padding an already added-on ending) and the cruel touches just dampen spirits as the lighter moments are few and so flatly-written they don’t give this material the sparkle it once did.

I haven’t seen the play in ages, and all I remember from the experience is thinking “This is stodgy,” so it’s understandable that one would want to brighten it up with a little cinematic history. But Coward’s jokes were wittier than most of what we hear here.

Stevens mugs, Fisher vamps and Mann and Dench do their damnedest. But you can’t improve on Coward, and there’s no re-animating this corpse.

MPA Rating: PG-13 for suggestive references and some drug material. 

Cast: Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann and Judi Dench

Credits: Directed by Edward Hall, script by Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard  and Piers Ashworth, based on the play by Noel Coward. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:39

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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