If a tree falls in the forest, and no-one hears it, does it fall at all? And if a film is delayed so many times that nobody noticed it get released, does it actually exist? Edward Hall’s adaptation of the famously whimsical Noel Coward play seems to have suffered multiple failures to launch due to the on-going pandemic, and it’s something of a surprise to find out that it appeared on Sky back in January, and is released in the US this week. Of course, Blithe Spirit had previously been scheduled for UK release in May, September and December 2020, so by the time it finally hit our screens, the makers and publicists were probably as tired waiting as the audience was.
Then again, it’s 75 years since the last cinematic version of this story, 1945’s David Lean version with Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings, so a do-over was probably a timely idea on inception.Comedy is a rare commodity these days, so we press on in search of rewards. Back in the day, Dan Stevens is the feckless Charlie Condomine, who unwisely invites eccentric spiritualist (is there any other kind?) Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) to his luxurious home. Charlie is a struggling writer; struggling because his ex-wife Elvira (Leslie Mann) did all the heavy lifting for him until her death. Charlie is now married to Ruth (Isla Fisher), but the medium’s involvements allows Elvira back into the writer’s life, and mildly comic complications ensue.
Mildly comic is about right; Blithe Spirit looks modern enough, but the set-pieces are decidedly old hat. What’s the problem? Stevens is an effective light comedian as seen in Eurovision: A Fire and Ice Saga, and manages to make Charlie amusingly prissy, while Dench clearly enjoys unleashing her inner Margaret Rutherford as the irascible Arcati. But neither Mann nor Fisher seem comfortable as the two women in Charlie’s life, and the result ends up feeling strained, stuffy and tiresome.
Blithe Spirit seems to be trickling out into the handful of available theatres in the US this week, and is worth a review even though it’s not great. It’s a screwball revival with a good cast, which might work for older audiences keen to see a bit of Olde English farce. Not a disgrace to the original, Blithe Spirit feels wildly out of touch with audience needs in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and yet it might just win a few fans by offering alternative, light-hearted viewing at a sombre moment in our times. The DVD below is listed on Amazon as being further delayed until circa May 2026, so most of us will be lucky to live to see it without the aid of a medium.