Blithe Spirit (2021) Review
TRUE LOVE NEVER DIES
In the age of cinematic storytelling, Hollywood has always turned to other source materials for inspiration. Some have been based on a “true story” or event, while others have taken “loosely” based on certain scenarios (i.e., alternative history). Naturally, the ideas of popular properties from the likes of video games, literary novels, and television have also taken center stage of filmmakers; ripping ideas and story narratives for a movie treatment. Among all of these inspirations, the idea of taking a theatrical stage play and translating it into a feature film has done many times; transforming a playwright narrative into a cinematic tale. Like all variant projects of this degree, the results can be mixed, but most, including famous stage plays like Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Les Miserable, Phantom of the Opera, Fences, Doubt, and many more, have found success in its translating from its source material. Now, StudioCanal and director Edward Hall releases the latest film to be adapted from a stage play with the release of Blithe Spirit. Does the movie find a proper medium balance between its “stage to movie” adaptation or is it just a bland and messy endeavor that can’t find its footing?
In 1937, Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is a celebrated crime novelist, but is struggling to come up with some new and entertaining ideas for his latest book, dealing with a crippling case of writer’s block to deal with. His wife, Ruth (Isla Fisher), tries to be supportive, watching her husband lose his mind and sexual appetite in the process while trying to make anything happen on the written page. Looking for a break to clear their heads, the pair visits a theater show, which stars Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), a medium whose gifts are exposed during a mid-performance mishap. Looking for a laugh and maybe some inspiration, Charles invites Arcati to his home, becoming part of a séance with Ruth and their friends, Dr. George (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and Violet Bradman (Emilia Fox). The evening proves to be more active than what was imagined as the spirt of Elvira (Leslie Mann), Charles’s deceased first wife, materializes on the property, delighted to be reunited with her husband. Dealing with the madness of such an event, Charles begins to lean on Elvira for story ideas, leaving Ruth increasingly hostile feelings of jealous as she’s forced to compete with a ghost. However, Elvira wants Charles for herself….by any means necessary.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Like many have said…. Hollywood has certainly run out of “fresh ideas”. The inspiration of coming up original and newly refreshing stories / concepts for motions pictures has become very stale (at least in my opinion) and the idea of “looking elsewhere” for proven narratives is becoming more commonplace. Popular properties and / or bestselling source material seems like a surefire “win” for a studio theatrical release and… giving the track record of most “based on” endeavors…it’s clear to see why. The idea of theatrical stage playwrights and Broadway shows definitely fits nicely within that category; drumming up a new cinematic translation from the stage to the silver screen. Of course, as mentioned above, there have been plenty of movies that were based on stage plays throughout the years and some have shared some great spotlight within the cinematic viewing experience. Of course, a lot of the William Shakespeare plays have seen a multitude of film screen adaptation throughout the years, with some of my personal favorites being 1989’s Henry V, 1996’s Hamlet, and 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, but there have been others theatrical stage plays that had some good cinematic treatments like 2004’s Phantom of the Opera, 2012’s Les Miserable, and 2020’s Hamilton (technically a stage recording, but still a somewhat cinematic representation). In the end, while Hollywood will continue to look towards other sources for feature film adaptations, the world of the theatrical stage plays will prove to be continuing resource for inspiration for potential movies on the horizon.
This brings me back to talking about Blithe Spirit, a 2021 comedy drama that is based on the stage play by Noel Coward in 1941. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much “buzz” or “talk” about this movie online as it kind of went “under my radar” for quite some time. I did, however, first hear about this movie when I went to my local movie theater and saw the film’s movie trailer a few times there. Judging from the trailer alone, the film looked pretty good. I loved the recognizable main cast of characters (Stevens, Fisher, Mann, and Dench) in their previous projects and the story for the movie (from the trailer alone) looked pretty amusing. So, I was kind of interested in seeing the movie when it was supposed to be released. However, while the movie trailer was shown at my local movie theater, Blithe Spirt was not shown in theaters and was made available as a VOD (video-on-demand) release. I assume it was because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless, I decided to check out the movie and rent it on Vudu. And what did I think of it? Well, it was a little bit of disappointment. Despite its premise and snappy cast, Blithe Spirit ends up being bland within its narration and lacking in that cinematic nuance for enjoyable entertainment; coming short within various aspects. It is, by no means, a train wreck of a movie, but just not much of a memorable one.
Blithe Spirit is directed by Edward Hall, whose directorial works includes directing several episodes from TV series (Downton Abbey, Kingdom, and Partners in Crime) as well as the TV movie Restless. Thus, giving his background, Hall makes Blithe Spirit one of his more ambitious projects as his first directorial debut in the motion picture category. In this regard, I think that Hall does a decent job; crafting and assembling a feature film that has plenty of potential to unwrap within Coward’s narrative of a stage play. Hall does do a good job in playing with some of the ideas, with the first act of the film perhaps being the best part of the feature; demonstrating the various acting talents chops as well as staging the stage for the main characters with their inane quirks and situation (i.e., Charles’s “basket case” writers mind, Ruth’s exasperated attitude, and Elvira’s narcissistic mindset, etc.). As a whole, Hall does embody Coward’s play, with this surreal situation that all the characters face; creating some amusing moments along the way. Despite the film’s flaws, which are many sadly, Hall does make the film have a breezy feeling, with the film having a runtime of 95 minutes (one hour and thirty-five minutes). Thus, the movie is relatively short and doesn’t go off on an unnecessary tangent that much; keeping its focus on the main players of the feature. Overall, I think Hall does give a decent effort in Blithe Spirit and its definitely clear to what his ultimate vision for the project is.
In the presentation category, Blithe Spirit is quite impressive. Say what you will with the movie’s problems (more on that below), but the feature certainly does look quite pretty and pleasing from onset to conclusion. The production quality is quite solid with the film’s budget showcasing beautifully the 1930s era of England; capturing the “look and feel” of the time period through the feature’s background setting and visual aesthetics. From this aspect, I think that the film excels, which does feel appropriate for the movie’s setting. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including John Paul Kelly (production design), Caroline Smith (set decorations), Charlotte Walter (costume designs), and John McHugh and Keith Slote (art direction) to help make the film’s world feel believable and elegant throughout. Additionally, the film’s score, which was composed by Simon Boswell, does a decent job with his musical composition. The soundtrack score is decent at best, but it gets the job done for the feature…. neither memorable nor distasteful. It just is there and adds to the maniac comedy that ensues throughout, with flourishes of whimsical and melodrama.
Unfortunately, Blithe Spirit lacks the necessary cinematic drive / punch that it desperately wants to achieve; lacking potential of what the feature could’ve been. Perhaps the best way to describe the movie is the fact that the film is relatively flat all the way around, which is quite disappointing given its unique concept a rather sluggish entertainment. How so? Well, it’s a combination of both the directing and the script, which prevents the feature from becoming quite memorable within this modern day of film releases. In the directing category, Hall certainly does stage sequences of events correctly, but the overall execution of them falls flat, with not much pizzazz and that extra “oomph” of which a story like this is needed. What’s film kind of works, but it also doesn’t at the same time and an experience directorial hand is needed for this particular project. Hall toils around with good ideas throughout the film and (from what I can tell) captures the spirt of Coward’s play, but doesn’t translate it well for his own interpretation for his vision of Blithe Spirit in a feature length film. The movie certainly does start out strong, with Hall painting a good picture of what is to come for the movie’s story, but it seems like he runs out of steam and creative juice by the time reaches its third act; languishing the potential and creating a missed opportunity. Whatever the case, it’s clear that Hall has certainly bitten off more than he can chew with this endeavor….and Blithe Spirt shows it.
As for the script, the movie is adapted by Nick Mooncroft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth, and the narrative path of Blithe Spirit is rather clunky, weak, and just downright vanilla. Naturally, the core narrative from Coward’s play frames the feature is still intact, but the script for the film never truly elevates it into a theatrical motion picture. Nothing about the movie’s script is memorable and plays up the screwball tropes and commonplace tactics within this surreal situation. It’s a bit too slapstick, but with little to no substance or weight behind it; rendering a large portion of the movie silly….and not in a good and amusing way. This also comes to the quirky comedy that the feature has, which is quite a mixed bag of sorts. Some jokes and gags do work, but a great majority of them fall flat; rendering a lot of the tended laughs quite moot and bland within their execution. This also comes up within the feature’s overall tone, which is presented as a dark comedy, with some screwball antics and macabre moments. The marriage between is always a bit sticky undergo, especially when shaping into a film script / screenplay, but can be done…if done the correct way. However, this is not the case with this particular film; finding the dark comedy elements wonky and underwhelming; never truly feeling congeal and more abrasive to the touch. Even the film’s ending feels quite clunky and unsatisfying. While I haven’t read / seen Coward’s original ending for Blithe Spirit, the script tries to tag on a feminist trope, which comes off as a cheap, unwanted, and fails to impress.
The main principal cast of Blithe Spirit is perfectly cast, with some great acting talents involved on this project, which is what got me interested in seeing this movie. However, while most are good, neither their acting prowess / screen presence nor the characters that they play are truly extraordinary or even that memorable, which is quite disappointing. Headlining the movie is actor Dan Stevens, who plays the film’s central main character of Charles Condomine, a novelist who is struggling with writer’s block and a very surreal situation. Stevens, known for his roles in Downton Abbey, Legion, and Beauty and the Beast, is great at playing the part of a “straight man” (i.e., proper, trimmed, poised character individual), but has leaned towards more eccentric characters (see Legion, The Guest, and The Man Who Invented Christmas). This is probably why Stevens went for the audition for the character Charles in Blithe Spirt and he doesn’t a pretty good job; playing the crazy and eccentric tendencies that Mr. Condomine feels throughout the movie. Unfortunately, Steven’s acting can only carry the character so far, with the characterization of Charles being relatively bland and undercooked for most of the feature. It’s clear where the movie is going for the character, but its just underwhelming to see play out, with Steven working with what’s given to him and limiting the actor from what he could’ve done. The end result of it all is that Steven is good in the role, but the character of Charles is not memorable.
As the more secondary leads, those belong to actresses Leslie Mann and Isla Fisher, who play Charles deceased first wife, Elvira, and his current second wife, Ruth. Mann, known for her roles in Knocked Up, Blockers, and How to be Single, has always played within the realm of comedy roles; portraying characters that have some type of inherit quirks and inane situation. A movie about a ghost wife that return from the Great Beyond to reconnect with her lover and get revenge on his recently married new wife, seems right up her alley. In truth, Mann actually does a good job as Elvira and plays the part well. The problem is that the movie’s script is quite limited to what Mann could do with the character, which makes her performances being tamed to what the actress is capable of doing. Thus, Mann’s Elvira is held together by the actress’s charm and not so much on the character she plays. That same can be said about Fisher, who is known for her roles in Now You See Me, Rise of the Guardians, and Wedding Crashers, has add a lot of her past career roles within the comedy film genre and seems like quite “perfect” fit for a role like Ruth in this quirky film. While Fisher’s performance is fine, the characterization of Ruth comes across as pretty weak and flat; projecting the standard concerned second wife that gets a bit hysterical a few times. It’s just a shame that both Mann and Fisher’s characters are rendered in such a thin and generic way in the movie as the potential for some memorable character roles is there, but never comes to fruition.
Seasoned veteran actress Judi Dench, who is best known for her roles in Casino Royale, Notes on a Scandal, and Shakespeare in Love, plays a somewhat amusing role in the character of Madame Arcati, an elderly medium woman who becomes entangled in the events of Charles, Ruth, and Elvira. While Dench’s acting is always good and certainly brings a certain type of “gravitas” whenever she’s on-screen, her character in the movie is pretty unmemorable. It’s not for a lack of trying on Dench’s part, but, much like the problems with this movie, Dench’s character is pretty “meh” and isn’t handled quite well; making Madame Arcati a rather cardboard supporting caricature.
The rest of the cast, including actress Aimee-Ffion (Luther and Peaky Blinders) as the maid Edith, actress Michele Dotrice (Vanity Fair and Captain Jack) as the cook Edith, actor Dave Johns (The Keeper and 23 Walks) as Harold, actress Emilia Fox (The Pianist and Dorian Gray) as Mrs. Violet Bradman, actor Julian Rhind-Tutt (Stardust and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) as Dr. George Bradman, actor Simon Kunz (The Parent Trap and Traitors) as Henry Mackintosh, and actor Adil Ray (Ackley Bridge and Citizen Khan) as Mandeep Singh, are delegated to minor supporting characters in the feature and, while many have limited screen-time, all of them acting talents in this grouping give favorable performances (i.e. no overacting or underperforming in my opinion).
True love never dies as struggling writer Charles Condomine soon discover when the spirt of his deceased ex-wife returns and causes mischief in his life in the movie Blithe Spirit. Director Edward Hall’s directorial debut feature film takes Noel Coward’s stage play and translate it into a cinematic treatment, for a movie of love and death. While the feature’s production quality is solid, the story premise is good, and the main cast are fun, a great majority of the film feels underwhelming, especially from a bit of Hall’s direction, character substance, and narrative proses that don’t quite work. Personally, I thought that this movie was pretty “meh” and a bit disappointing. Yes, some elements of the film worked, but there a strong feeling that I felt that the movie was one of those missed opportunities. Thus, my recommendation for this film is a favorable “skip it” as it really doesn’t warrant much of a glance…. even if you like some of the principal cast. In the end, while Hollywood will continue to examine tales of the paranormal ghostly specters in various film genres, Blithe Spirit just winds up ending being a movie that’s somewhere in-between everything. Neither bad, but not memorable. Almost like a waystation of purgatory of sorts….and that’s not a good thing.
2.6 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: February 19th, 2021
Reviewed On: September 1st, 2021
Blithe Spirit is 96 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for suggestive references and some drug material
I’m not really surprised that this didn’t shine as a film adaptation. I’ve seen the play, and while it has some delightful lines, it’s fairly superficial and simple. It would have taken a lot of work to make it a strong film.