Re-imagining a beloved work of pop culture is never an easy task. Sure, there have been some grand examples of those who have succeeded, but far too often even the most talented of individuals can’t accomplish the task. And when it comes to the 2020 version of Blithe Spirit, directed by Edward Hall, it unfortunately falls into the enormous pile of film adaptations that are quite pointless. Because even with the likes of some talented folks such as Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Leslie Mann, and Judi Dench, none of them could fix this movie’s laundry list of problems.
Like the Noël Coward play and 1945 film that came before it, Blithe Spirit tells the story of Charles Condomine (Stevens, “The Rental”), a writer looking to create his next big hit. In the case of this particular version, Charles is actually trying to write a screenplay, where in most he’s focusing on a new book. In the hopes of being inspired, he calls upon the supernatural talents of Madame Arcati (Dench, “Victoria and Abdul”), a medium known for her theatrics more than her legitimacy. Yet while she is performing a séance, Arcati accidentally summons the spirit of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Mann, “Blockers”), back from the other side. Now Charles finds himself stuck between not only his past, but his present in the form of his second wife, Ruth (Fisher, “Nocturnal Animals”) — making this the wackiest (and deadliest) of love triangles.
On paper, a remake of Blithe Spirit makes perfect sense. It’s a story that has some interesting things to say about gender roles, magic, and of course contains a sizable amount of comedic antics to keep audiences chuckling. Plus, considering the ever changing society we live in, the complicated relationship between the story’s three leads deserves to be reexamined with a more modern mindset. But what Hall creates in aesthetic, eye catching splendor, he unfortunately lacks in every other aspect of this adaptation. From the awkward balance of Jim Carrey-inspired zaniness to the almost grotesque visual gags, Hall manages to make his take on Coward play’s as uneven as humanly possible.
But the biggest problem within this Blithe Spirit comes from what is on the page. Screenwriters Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth have somehow managed to morph this classic story into something much more complicated than it needed to be. From additional subplots that bounce in every direction, to jokes that come across as dated as they are uncomfortable, it almost seems like this incarnation of the ghostly tale might have been written in the early 80’s and dug up from an abandoned crypt on a studio lot. And though there’s nothing wrong with a old fashionable madcap comedy being re-imagined for modern audiences, it seems this screenwriting trio had no clue who this movie was made for.
This particularly comes to mind in the way Elvira is portrayed. There’s no denying that this iconic character has been known for her wild antics, but Mann’s take on the role often conflicts with the details the screenplay gives about her. For we as the audience are given fact upon fact to try and sympathize with the ghostly leading lady. But when those sprinkles of information are sandwiched next to some pretty despicable sequences, its hard to show Elvira any bit of compassion. One moment, in which Elvira attempts to seduce Charles while Ruth is sleeping next to him, evokes the kind of stomach turning cringe that not even the worst episode of a TLC reality show could induce. Overall, it leads to this writer asking, why was that necessary? Perhaps I, nor many, will ever know.
Thankfully, Blithe Spirit does offer a cast of true acting greats from top to bottom. Sure, they don’t save this movie from its faults, but they make what otherwise could be a truly painful experience a bit more charming to endure. Obviously, Dan Stevens is always a pleasure to see on screen. He’s one of those actors that has a kind of magical quality that allows him to take the most questionable of material and make it a thrill to watch. The same can be said of course of the great Dame Judi Dench, who proved that even in 2019’s “Cats,” she can somehow do no wrong.
Yet when it comes to the film’s two female rivals for Charles’ affections, they seem to be a tad unevenly matched. Both Fisher and Mann are comedy pros, who have proven time and time again that they can master their funny bone just as well as their dramatic chops. But Fisher seems almost miscast as Ruth, simply because even in her most serious of moments, she has a wide-eyed aesthetic that doesn’t match this typically grounded character. Some could even argue she would have been just as good in the role of Elvira, but that’s a performance we can only dream about.
Mann on the other hand does as much as she can with Elvira, despite the awkward moments she’s asked to perform. She’s perfectly grand in her extremely catty moments, and even better when she’s dropping some excellent truth bombs at her former husband. But when push comes to shove, its sad to think when knowing Mann’s skills at comedy, that she’s required to do half-baked slapstick. Audiences know she’s so much better than the material given to her, and at times, you can tell she knows it too.
The same compliment can be given to the film’s other pro: Its excellent aesthetic appeal. Art directors John McHugh and Keith Slote, along with set decorator Caroline Smith managed to make the world of this Blithe Spirit as pretty as a vintage postcard. Pastel colored walls, bold furniture, and masterful cinematography by Ed Wild make this movie a joy to look at from an almost Instagram-worthy point of view. And with the equally exciting costumes by Charlotte Walter, this ghostly tale ends up looking quite more alive than dead, even in its “spookiest” of sequences. Think a drag queen’s take on “Clue,” over the top feather headpieces and all.
Overall, though Blithe Spirit might have its sprinkles of joy from time to time, Hall’s remake comes off as misguided. It tries to say some interesting things about a multitude of topics, but ultimately doesn’t result in anything new. And when you have an classic film adaptation that does a much better (and memorable) job at conveying this quirky tale to the big screen, why even bother trying to bring it back from the grave?