By Carol Rocamora
“I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed and I also knew that it would be a success,” wrote the great British playwright Noel Coward with characteristic flair, upon completing his draft of Blithe Spirit in 1941.
Let’s hope that Edward Hall’s current film version fulfills the same prophecy.
Coward wrote this charming confection during World War II, sequestered in Wales. His London flat had been reduced to rubble in the London bombings, but he refused to let that silence his comedic muse. He was determined to provide a delightful diversion for British audiences in those desperate days. It took him five days to write Blithe Spirit (1941) and, despite wartime, it ran for 1997 performances in London, and subsequently on Broadway for 657 performances. In 1945, Rex Harrison starred in a film version.
Given the stressful times in which we’re now living, we would do well with some comic relief, too. Sadly, Coward’s sparkling humor and scintillating wit are lost in translation in the new screen adaptation of this blissfully blithe comedy.
Nonetheless, director Edward Hall has managed to capture the glitter and glamour that is the essence of Coward’s world. That, plus a cluster of starry performances and some snazzy special effects, makes this film version stylish, diverting, and pleasurable viewing.
The original play Blithe Spirit is a frivolous flight of fancy – a supernatural romp that includes some dark elements, too (including marital conflict and death). The film adaptation loosely follows the original plot, with elaborations and embellishments. It features a screenwriter named Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens), who is suffering mightily from writers’ bloc. He’s late on a screenplay deadline for his father-in-law, a film producer. To cure him of the bloc, he attends a séance staged by Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), an eccentric medium who makes a fatal error (in reverse) – she conjures up the ghost of Charles’s capricious first wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann), now deceased. Charles can see her ghost, but his second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) can’t. (That’s the running joke of the rest of the story). Plotting and scheming ensues – featuring Ruth’s jealous effort to get rid of Elvira, and Elvira’s vengeful effort to kill Charles so he can join her in the other world.
Charles’s lush villa, where the action is set, plus the glamorous costumes (by Charlotte Walter) provide plenty of “eye candy.” (Cinematography is by Ed Wild.) The soundtrack includes “Someday I’ll Find You,” a sentimental song from Private Lives that Coward himself wrote and performed. As for the stylish performances, Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey fame) is a debonair Charles, and Leslie Mann (Elvira) and Isla Fisher (Ruth) provide the glamour that Coward calls for. The wonderful Judi Dench makes an appropriately eccentric Madame Arcati.
The screenwriter/adaptors (Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, Nick Moorcroft) add their own ending, wherein Charles is accused of plagiarism (yes, he finally finishes the screenplay – Elvira’s ghost writes it for him). Charles flees from the studio, protesting: “There’s no such thing as an original story”. Methinks the gentleman doth protest too much – yes, there is such a thing as an original story, and Noel Coward wrote it.
Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward, in a film adaptation by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, Nick Moorcroft, directed by Edward Hall, to be released by IFC Films in select theaters, digital and on demand