Noël Coward’s supernatural stage farce about a man literally haunted by his ex-wife gave him a walloping great West End hit at the height of World War II, and begat a classic David Lean film version just as the conflict was winding down.
Well, this is pretty much as grim a moment as its homeland has faced since the ’40s: can director Edward Hall’s new film of Blithe Spirit – starring Judi Dench as dodgy spiritual medium Madame Arcati – cheer us all up again? It’s kind of unlikely, though it does at least offer chuckle or two.
Dench is both its saving grace and Achilles heel. She is, of course, terrific. On stage Arcati is normally a bit of fun for lady actors of a certain age, who get to chew up the scenery preposterously for two scenes and then have a bit of a lie down for the rest. Dench is given a greatly expanded role, and she breathes soulful, battered life into the old psychic, who frustrated novelist Charles invites over to hold a séance.
But in showing bittersweet glimpses of Aracti’s life outside of Charles’s dining room, Dench exacerbates the main problem with Hall’s adaptation. The source material is basically a very funny but very silly battle-of-the-sexes comedy, wherein Arcari accidentally summons Charles’s vampish late first wife Elvira, much to the dismay of his very much still alive second wife, Ruth.
But Hall’s approach plays it too straight. There’s fun to be had with Dan Stevens’s self-regarding Charles, Leslie Mann’s huskily venomous Elvira, and Isla Fisher‘s perky Ruth. But Blithe Spirit is meant to be a farce. Here, pitched closer to the tone of a bog-standard costume drama, it never reaches the hysterical silliness of the play. Of course, a film can deviate from its source material, but this take doesn’t fundamentally make the story any deeper or richer. It’s handsomely put together, but just not as funny as it could be.
Streaming in the UK on Sky Cinema Jan 15. Out in the US Feb 19.