Review by Sean Boelman
Noël Coward is considered by many to be one of the greatest playwrights ever, and as such, adapting his work is no easy task. The star-studded new version of Blithe Spirit may not be entirely necessary, but fun performances keep this comedy mostly entertaining even if it struggles when it tries to be something more.
The film tells the story of a writer suffering from writer’s block who finds himself in a jam when a medium accidentally summons the spirit of his dead wife and she ends up at odds with his current wife. Coward’s play was first performed in 1941, and it’s an interesting choice to keep this as a period piece rather than modernizing it.
Although the focus here seems to be on the central love triangle, the more interesting aspect of the story is its exploration of the idea of plagiarism. Granted, it’s a much more niche and less widely relatable idea, but it’s also a much more original conflict, making the movie more compelling overall as a result.
Coward does have a very specific sense of dry humor, and director Edward Hall wasn’t quite able to translate that to the screen. Instead, the film turns into a more straightforward slapstick comedy. There are still funny moments, but watching the ghost ex-wife and live wife trying to outwit each other gets old rather quickly.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this movie, though, is the character development. Coward’s plays are set in high society, but manage to humanize the characters. In this version, all of the characters feel like jerks, leaving us no character for which we are rooting. And cheering for all of their demise does not seem to be the purpose.
That said, the actors do a great job nevertheless, giving performances that are genuinely fun to watch. It’s great to see Dan Stevens getting more comedic work, because he has the chops to pull it off. Isla Fisher and Leslie Mann have a great dynamic as the protagonist’s two wives. And Judi Dench is great but underused in her role as the medium.
On a technical level, the film looks pretty strong. The production design does an adequate job of setting the time period of the movie, even though it doesn’t fully dial up the quirkiness factor that could have made this even more enjoyable. Hall’s direction of the comedic beats is also competent, if straightforward.
Blithe Spirit isn’t a great adaptation of Noël Coward’s work, but it’s a passable film by all means. It’s worth watching if only for the opportunity to get to watch the four leads chew the scenery at every possible chance.
Blithe Spirit hits theaters and VOD on February 19.