Wander Darkly

Adrienne and Matteo happy on a boat

 

Matteo (Diego Luna) and Adrienne (Sienna Miller) are a broke couple with a new baby and a relationship on the skids. Arguing on the way home from a date night, mostly about Adrienne giving someone the glad-eye, they are involved in a massive car crash. This is no spoiler, we’re only a handful of minutes into Wander Darkly, and writer/director Tara Miele is just setting the scene – economically and with great visual flair – for the drama to come.

Adrienne is dead. Or is she suffering from post-traumatic delirium and is just imagining she’s dead? Or is something else going on? It’s not certain, but what we can see is Adrienne in the hospital corridors, bloody and bewildered. Then Adrienne is at her own funeral, watching a crack-voiced Matteo attempting a reading over her coffin.

He eventually joins her in this sliding existence – Is he dead too? Is she imagining him? – and together they slide about from one “scene of a marriage” to another, observing themselves at key moments in their own relationship. How they met. When they first slept together. That amazing holiday to Mexico. The night she flirted with that dude and Matteo saw her.

They’re not just replaying these scenes, they’re also commenting on them as they replay them – it’s a technique more familiar from theatre (where it’s often done for reasons of hard cash). It’s interesting to watch in a film and it’s done, as the opening crash was, with great fluidity and a strong visual sense. One moment it’s night in the US, the next it’s a hot afternoon on a boat in Mexico, the actors not missing a beat as they (we, actually) segue from one scenario to the next.

 

Adrienne and Matteo quarrel
…and the bad times

 

Miller and Luna are playing a couple who never actually formalised their relationship by getting married and this seems appropriate in any evaluation of Wander Darkly. Matteo and Adrienne don’t quite work as a couple, nor do Luna and Miller as actors. They’re operating in different registers, Miller’s altogether more naturalistic. In fact for me eventually the film became more about watching Miller’s performance, which is brilliant (but then when is she not?), rather than watching events unfolding. To be fair to Luna, Matteo has been written as peevish and there’s not an awful lot he can do about that.

The touchstone for this sort of thing – sliding around inside a relationship chronologically to find out when it all went wrong – is François Ozon’s 2004 “backwards romance” 5X2, but Miele might also be referencing the meta-trickery and investigations of truth and fiction of Abbas Kiarostami, where movie “realism” is also often held up for scrutiny.

They’re interesting choices but whichever way you peel it, the film’s narrative conceit runs out of juice before the end. The more of their own past that Matteo and Adrienne excavate, the more things start to devolve into scenes of him accusing her or her accusing him. At one point it feels like one of those “kitchen sink” arguments where every old grievance from the past is being dredged up to add fuel to the fire – the “and you always hated my mother” kind of thing (Matteo does in fact hate Adrienne’s mother). Except here, slights that have not yet happened can also be thrown into the mix, as when Adrienne admonishes Matteo for abandoning their now-motherless child, something he hasn’t done yet. Watching couples bicker is rarely fun.

As if this weren’t already a problem, the finale takes a bit of a swerve. I won’t say where to because that really is a spoiler. But as well as throwing quite a left turn, it throws in a conclusion which emotionally seems to belong to an entirely different film. It wanders, darkly, perhaps because it’s lost its way.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Farewell Amor

Opening shot: the family meets

 

Think of how many films there have been about the Irish immigrant experience in the USA. Or the Italian. Farewell Amor is a real rarity, because it’s looks at that fraught, hopeful new beginning through African eyes.

Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is a refugee from Angola who went through the civil war there and is now living in New York, where he drives a cab. He’s been separated from his family for 17 years, but is now finally reunited with them. In fact that’s the first scene of Ekwa Msangi’s film: Walter, his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and teenage daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) meeting at JFK airport.

The look on Sylvia’s face sets the tone for the rest of the film. She isn’t sure she really wants to be there and doesn’t really know who this guy is. She’s maybe 18 and so that figures.

That first look immediately takes Farewell Amor from being all about migration statistics and global flows of refugees and instead makes it about a family trying to revive a bond which has, in effect, died in the years they’ve been apart.

Three things stand in the way of a rekindling of old connections. Walter has built a life for himself in America, and that includes a loving relationship with a local medic (Nina Mensah), who he’s just dumped to make a new go of his old life. Esther has become hyper-religous in the intervening years, saying grace before eating with a fervour that bewilders Walter and frequently phoning Africa to speak to someone called Sister Redemptor for spiritual backup. Sylvia’s teenage growing pains have become multiplied by the added dislocation of being a new kid on the block. Being black and a foreigner, her father warns her, are a double burden in this country.

 

Walter and Sylvia
Walter, Sylvia and a massive gulf

 

The film started life as a ten minute short and one of the ways that writer/director Msangi has bulked it out is by re-running the opening “getting to know you” scenes twice more, first from the perspective of the wife (who intuits that something is up in the relationship between her and Walter) and then the daughter (edging into a possible romance at school, trying to gain status with her peers with her dance moves, leaning towards a thaw in the frosty relationship with her father).

There’s something a touch half-hearted about the amount of time allotted to these digressions. Walter seems to be the character that Msangi is really interested in, and these feel like flailing attempts to prove her film is about more than him. On the upside, they give a chance for both Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson to exercise an acting muscle or two.

I wondered where exactly in Africa these three actors came from. The US and the UK is the answer, which just goes to show. All three are excellent, but the standout is Mwine, who exudes a warmth and charisma that shouldn’t do his late-blossoming career any harm at all.

Actually, the acting (and casting) stand out throughout. Nana Mensah as Linda conveys the fact that Walter has broken her heart in a handful of convincing looks – she doesn’t get much screen time. Joie Lee (sister of Spike) adds a dash of spice just when the film needs it as the next door neighbour who takes Esther under her wing and gives her sisterly streetwise advice – she doesn’t get much screentime either.

The excursions into structure to one side, it’s a simple and direct drama that achieves its best effects when the dialogue recedes, the camera pulls back and the characters simply interact in the small New York apartment they now all call home. Bristling here, softening there, it’s ensemble acting at a high pitch.

 

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Viy

The witch rides Khoma

1967’s Viy is often described as the only horror film made in the Soviet Union. In truth it’s more like a fairy tale than a horror story, more Grimm than grim – bum, tish – though in the final haunting sequence things definitely start going bump in the night.

Odder than its solitary genre status is the fact that it’s a film with religion at its core. The USSR did not do god. Yet Viy is suffused with religious symbols and practices, beliefs and lore. There’s a good deal of paganism too, which the scientifically minded USSR wasn’t very keen on either. The original story was by Nikolay Gogol, who claimed it was lifted from folklore. This was untrue but it probably helped seal the deal when it came to getting a greenlight from the Soviet censor. Plain, honest working-man’s folklore=good. Fancy, arcane opium-of-the-people religion=bad.

It’s a short film (77 mins) and the plot is simple. Khoma is a lusty, carousing trainee priest on his way home from the seminary to spend some time with his family. Needing a place to lay his head for the night, he implores an old woman to let him stay with her, in a barn or a loft or wherever she has a space. She turns out to be a witch and, having seemingly attempted to take advantage of Khoma sexually (the story looks like it’s going into Geoffrey Chaucer territory here), she rides him (literally) into the heavens, on his back with a broomstick clutched in one hand. Incensed, Khoma beats her nearly to death, whereupon the old crone turns into a beautiful young woman.

Natalya Varley as the young witch
Natalya Varley as the young witch



Days later, back at the seminary, the young man is summoned by his abbot and told that he’s been called by name to attend to the dying daughter of a local dignitary. This seems odd – a dignitary requesting a student priest.

The daughter at death’s door turns out to be the same witch/young beauty, and by the time Khoma gets there she is dead. His task now morphs into standing vigil over the dead sorceress for three nights, to ease the passage of her soul into the afterlife.

This is the meat of the film, the three nights, being tempted and tormented by the witch, still lively for one so dead, and her cohorts of various monsters and ghouls (and special effects teams).

It’s a very well cast film. Cheeky Khoma is played by the likeable Leonid Kuravlyov. The female witch is actually played by a man, the gangly, bony and brilliantly nimble Nikolay Kutuzov, while Natalya Varley is as beautiful as she’s meant to be as the dead witch in her young state. Of much less relevance though still well chosen are the gaggle of old guys who attend to Khoma at his vigil. Ensuring he goes through with his three-night ordeal, they’re an impromptu guard, and a gaggle of expressive faces, big moustaches and fine fur hats. They also handily act as a bit of a Greek chorus and sounding board, allowing Khoma to express his inner thoughts (and any plot developments that need getting out into the open).

Vodka helps here, with scenes of drunken carousing the opportunity for boozy chit-chat. And when vodka isn’t being drunk it’s often being talked about. Oh those Russians etc…

The odd group scene wobbles but the acting is mostly excellent and the same can be said for the film’s technical aspects. There’s the occasional shaky pan or zoom but on the whole the camera is remarkably fluid and unobtrusive – it’s 1967 and massive rigs were still the norm, so it’s doubly impressive that something of this era, using that kit, is so light on its toes.

A skeleton jiggles about like a marionette at one point, reflecting the odd laughable horror effect (let’s face it, even Ray Harryhausen had trouble making skeletons convincingly menacing). But for the most part the supernatural sequences are undeniably atmospheric, and though you can see the joins, there’s a real imagination at work. Giant hands waving like seaweed from the floor, Khoma spinning around and around in the air, hordes of green-painted ghouls scuttling about in an unsettling way, just some of the triumphs of an almost homemade mix of physical effects and camera sleight of hand.

It’s all shot in Ukraine, which looks properly medieval and very fertile, with wide silty rivers winding across vast plains, while Karen Khachaturyan’s soundtrack roars and trembles and the Russian male voice choirs lament. The post-dubbing is one of those no-nos that takes some getting used to. Everyone’s acoustically dead voice has obviously been added afterwards, Natalya Varley’s by someone else entirely.

“A cossack doesn’t fear anything in the world,” Khoma says at least twice in the film, once to brace himself for the ordeal ahead, and once while he’s in mid-defence of life and limb using magic circles and other decidedly non-Christian methods. Though it’s otherwise devoid of any propagandistic message, this is probably the real reason why the film got made – as with Cossacks so with Communists, or so the regime hoped.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


The Kid Detective

Sophie Nélisse and Adam Brody in a car

 

The Kid Detective is Evan Morgan’s feature debut – he wrote and directed – and it’s a cracker, a mystery that manages to be funny and dramatic, brand new and yet intensely familiar.

Adam Brody plays Abe Applebaum, the “kid detective” whose deductive powers once made him a big noise in his small town, where he’d solve mysteries ranging from missing lunch money at school to cases that stumped the police. Young Sherlock Holmes.

Now, aged 32, he’s drinking and watching daytime TV, unshaven, a burn-out who can’t follow his successful first act and who’s still haunted by the case that finished his run of glory – a missing schoolgirl, abducted presumed dead. His parents are worried about him.

However, he plods on as a proper private detective, though his cases never really extend beyond missing cats and the like. The small town that made him is now constraining him. To them he’ll always be a kid.

And then one day a case comes in, a young woman whose boyfriend has just been killed. Whodunit? Off they go together, Caroline (Sophie Nélisse) and Abe, sometimes with Abe’s parents (Wendy Crewson, Jonathan Whittaker) trailing along in the rear, because they worry about him.

The character of Abe is crucial to the success of The Kid Detective, and Brody has got it just about right. Though he has the looks and often the line delivery of a young Colin Firth, in essence Brody is playing James Garner in The Rockford Files, the good-natured, ruffled, quippy detective more like to get punched than do any actual punching, as likely to stumble on the key to the mystery as discover it by deduction or sleuthing.

Garner mixed with a bucket of social awkwardness. Abe is a master of inadvertently saying the wrong thing, whether it’s to the grieving parents (Tzi Ma, Sharon Crandall) of the dead man, or the bereft girlfriend or his old head teacher (Peter McNeill), who he addresses as “dude”.

 

Abe in his very Marlowe-esque office
Because that’s the sort of office detectives have, right?

 

It’s very laconic, very deadpan, very well played and brilliantly written – in an early exchange with his parents, who are hectoring him about his lack of cases, Abe retorts, “I had a case last week. Some gay guy wanted me to find out if another guy was gay.” “Was he?” asks his mother. “A little bit,” Abe replies. As the implications of this remark sink in, Abe’s dad looks away.

It’s about 15 years since Rian Johnson made his feature debut with Brick, which was a similar excursion into Philip Marlowe territory. Then it was Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the young schamus, and the angle was that he was an actual schoolkid who spat world-weary dialogue out of the side of his mouth, Bogie style.

Though Abe doesn’t speak like he’s been scripted by Raymond Chandler, he operates out of a recognisably Marlowe-esque office – with frosted glass in the door, gold lettering picking out his name and a secretary. I mean, who has a secretary? Though Lucy (Sarah Sutherland) treats Abe and the clients with disdain and has multiple piercings and goth make-up so she’s not the usual variety. Probably doesn’t take shorthand.

There’s a dark psychology bubbling along beneath the frothy top layer – the boy who can’t grow up, in a town that won’t let him. This, added to Abe’s crippling lack of self esteem, brilliantly characterised by a scene when Abe takes some “ego boosting” drugs (cocaine, basically), makes for a film operating on several levels.

Adding more textures is Jay McCarrol’s soundtrack, which seems to be referencing The Ipcress File, a mysterious way to go but it seems to work.

The character of the not-exactly-grief-stricken Caroline is a bit of a blank, but that’s by intention. It’s the secretary, Lucy, who’s interesting. Is that a spark between Abe and her, Perry Mason and Della Street style? Is this a case of To Be Continued?

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Synchronic

Paramedics Mackie and Dornan

 

Synchronic is Christopher Nolan knock-off fronted by a pair of decent actors – Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan – and directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who gave us the intelligent indie psycho-thriller The Endless.

Mackie and Dornan play a pair of paramedics who start noticing that weird cases are coming their way. One badly injured man appears to be suffering from a drug overdose but also has a massive sword wound from front to back through his chest. The sword appears to be the sort of thing a conquistador might carry. Another man is lying at the bottom of a lift shaft, dismembered but with a big smile on his face.

Behind these cases, a pre-credits sequence has told us, is a drug called Synchronic – “fake ayahuasca” says one character – which has the effect of making you so high that you travel in time to a different era. Or maybe you actually do travel there.

Mackie plays Steve, a bed-hopping singleton who’s just been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, Dornan is his buddy, Dennis, the married man with a marriage on the skids and a daughter about to leave home. Do we need to know more about these guys than that they’re paramedics? Not really, though it helps when Dennis’s daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing – latest Synchronic victim – and Steve decides it’s his last task before he dies to track her down and bring her back from wherever she’s gone.

 

Steve enters the MRI scanner
Steve enters the MRI scanner

 

Do Steve and Dennis even need to be two characters? Not really, in fact they feel like one decent character divided up into bite-size chunks, but then bite-size chunks is the big (ie little) idea here.

Or do I mean pre-digested gobbets? Synchronic leans extremely heavily on Christopher Nolan – that Nolan-esque slow reveal of the portentous single-word title in the opening credits has established that. And later we get the very Nolan-esque scene when Steve meets the chemist who designed Synchronic, and the chemist tells him the mindbending truth about several time realities all co-existing and how the drug allows the taker to jump between them and we all nod as if we understand and have no idea what’s just been said, just like we did in Tenet when all that “backwards time” stuff was explained.

Can you do Nolan on a budget that’s not in the squillions? Nolan can: see Memento. But if you’re regurgitating old Nolan ideas you’d better bring something new to the party. Writer Justin Benson does that with early scenes between the paramedics and the cops at the site of the latest medical emergency, scenes that bristle with a bantering “fuck you” tension between the cops, who want to control every crime scene, and the paramedics, who actually do, until the needs of the sick and dying are taken care of at least.

Benson also makes Steve a reasonably interesting dude – as well as a hard-partying paramedic who’s painfully reluctant to tell anyone about his condition, he’s a keen student of physics, quoting Einstein at one point (“The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”) He also has a a dog called Hawking, after the author of A Brief History of Time Stephen Hawking, presumably.

The fact that Steve is black adds a frisson when he jumps back in time on one of his exploratory “experiments” to find out just how precisely the Synchronic pills do their thing and winds up being menaced by the Ku Klux Klan. Later, a drunk white Confederate soldier will mistake Steve for his slave.

Benson and Moorhead (plus Michael Felker) handle the cinematography and editing, both of which are excellent. Budget constraints can’t hide the sparseness of some of those jaunts back into the past, though the special effects work as present and past bleed into each other is also excellent.

To what extent have the talented Benson and Moorhead taken the shilling and subdued their own instincts to make a movie someone else thought would be a good idea? I don’t know, but making an obviously Nolan-esque film means comparisons are going to be made every step of the way. All in all, Synchronic would seem a much better film if it wasn’t standing in someone else’s shadow.

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

I’m Your Woman

Jean with new baby

 

I’m Your Woman starts with a series of wham-bam events that prompt the question: “what is that all about?”

A man arrives home and gives his wife a baby she’s clearly never seen before in a “there you are, get on with it” kind of way.

In the next scene, a gang of men all arrive at the house that Eddie (Bill Heck) shares with Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) + new unexplained baby. Who are they?

Eddie suddenly goes missing. Why?

A guy called Cal (Arinzé Kene) turns up, gives Jean a big bag of money and spirits her (+ new unexplained baby) off to a hideout.

We have no idea what’s going on and neither the screenplay nor direction nor the look on Jean’s face are giving us any clues. However, director Julia Hart is laying on the pregnant silences, and the spare soundtrack (by ASKA) is clanking away guiltily here and there, suggesting there is something rattling in Jean’s closet. Jean – the way she accepts the baby, her husband’s disappearance, Cal, the money, the relocation, all with barely a murmur – is the biggest unanswered question of all.

Further strange, unsettling, even murderous events start happening around Jean and she seems to be at the mercy of them all. The woman as passive agent. Cal turns up again and evacuates Jean from what was meant to be a new life in a quiet neighbourhood but which all went bloodily bad. She ends up rehomed in a cabin in the woods. Then Cal’s wife (Marsha Stephanie Blake), father (Frankie Faison) and son (Da’mauri Parks) turn up and things start to unravel… and explain themselves at the same time.

Jean cannot cook, not even a fried egg, she cannot have children and now her husband’s run off. She looks like a depressed woman and behaves like she’s carrying a burden of failure.

As it becomes clearer that Jean’s Eddie was in fact a very bad man, I’m Your Woman’s dynamics start to shift from mystery thriller to chase thriller, and along the way Jean stops being Your Woman (ie a gangster’s moll) and becomes Her Own Woman, albeit one who’s running for her life.

Though she’s barely paused for breath since she started working in 2009, Brosnahan is probably best known for being the star of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, a series set in a kind of Mad Men 1960s. We’re in the 1970s in I’m Your Woman, Brosnahan’s centre-parted lank hair and denim flares a match for the stoner lassitude that characterised the era. Neither director Hart nor Brosnahan seems quite as obsessive about capturing the era as Maisel, but it’s not necessary. This isn’t really about the 1970s, it’s about a woman finding her way.

 

An underground bar
A new world awaits

 

Men don’t fare that well, coming across for the most part as seedy, stupid and impulsive whenever we catch a proper glimpse of them, which is rare. But I’m Your Woman is at its best while its mysteries are still mysteries, its characters in the shade, while we’re leaning in to try and find out what’s going on, rather than sitting back to see how things are going to turn out. The unanswered is the source of this unusual film’s power.

How Jean escapes from her husband’s shadow and from the men who are following her – and whether she does – is the stuff of spoilers. What can be said without ruining things too much is that it’s a rousing, bloody and satisfying finale and compensates a touch for the sense of things having wound down, paradoxically, as obscurity has given way to action.

Jean’s journey is from being an extra in someone else’s play to being the star in her own. From judging herself as a failed woman to being the judge of other, mostly useless, men.

And as Jean establishes herself as a person in her own right, discovers her own code to live by, this film ends, in a way that’s ever so faintly reminiscent of a movie from the early 1970s, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, which also didn’t so much end as just grind. to. a. halt.

 

 

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Herself

Celebrating the build

 

Phyllida Lloyd is most often described as the director of Mama Mia! but there’s a lot more to her than that. Take Herself, the latest in a line of strongly female-centred productions, including the Mrs Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady and the all-female Shakespeare productions of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest at the Donmar Theatre in London, which drew raves from the critics, wild applause from audiences and loud harrumphs from the gammons.

The Shakespeares all gave top billing to Harriet Walter, and meaty roles to Clare Dunne. Here, Dunne is thrust into the lead (well, she did co-write) and Walter is a gracious supporting star in a story about one woman’s triumph over shitty circumstance.

It’s heartwarming in the extreme though it doesn’t look like it’s going that way as things kick off – literally – with young mum Sandra (Dunne) being stamped on and hideously abused by her husband Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson so convincing he’s going to struggle to shake off the reputational damage), the last in a long line of such events, we gather, but the one that prompts her to quit Gary and the family home.

With two kids in tow, Sandra is soon living out of a crappy room in an airport hotel. She’s not even allowed to use the front door, so wary are the management of being seen to be offering accommodation to welfare types.

 

Sandra and Gary square off
A typical Sandra/Gary interaction

 

Exhausted by her two jobs, one cleaning the house of a doctor (Walter) who’s broken her hip, the other in a bar where the landlord is all take and no give, Sandra inhabits a world familiar to the fans of Ken Loach – it’s tough at the bottom.

The swerve comes when Sandra stumbles across a YouTube video explaining how to build a decent home for very little money, and then the doctor comes across with the offer of a chunk of her garden to help Sandra realise her dream.

All Sandra needs now is people to help her… for nothing, or the occasional cold beer at the end of the day. And for the authorities not to discover what she’s about, because it’ll jeopardise her benefits status. And also for her husband not to find out, because he’s a vindictive bastard.

Herself pivots elegantly away from Loach – though Sandra’s band of merry helpers hold fast to his communitarianism – and into feelgood territory, and while the authorities never seem like that much of a threat, even when the legal wheels start to grind, the glowering Gary keeps the sense of threat high.

Lloyd replays the moment Gary stamps on Sandra several times to remind us what the stakes are, and to suggest that Sandra’s road ahead might still be rock-strewn.

Many of the support crew of builder’s mates Sandra assembles are so underused they’re barely more than names on a cast list – Dmitry Vinokurov as Dariusz and Mabel Chah as Yewande to name but two – but Conleth Hill gets a good shout as the actual honest-to-goodness builder Sandra meets in a builder’s merchant’s and who she inveigles into helping her.

What’s wrong with feelgood? Absolutely nothing. Nor with absolutely straightforward, straightahead film-making. There’s no added romance to complicate the story, no tricksiness with the cameras, no messing about with the chronology, this is – at some speed and streamlined to the point that, yes, some characters don’t get much of a look-in – Sandra’s story pure and simple.

It’s Clare Dunne’s first time out as a writer (with co-writer Malcolm Campbell, who co-wrote What Richard Did, another tale of Dublin life) and what a debut. It’s a great performance too – a human mix of the sensitive and the tough that’s entirely believeable. This film won’t work unless we were rooting for Sandra. And we are.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Blithe Spirit (1945)

Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford and Constance Cummings

 

“How the hell did you fuck up the best thing I ever did?” Noel Coward famously asked director David Lean when he first saw the film version of Blithe Spirit, a play that had wowed London in 1941 and went on to do the same on Broadway.

We’re now often told the film – a relative flop on its first release – is a classic. It isn’t, but certain elements of it remain quite special, most obviously Margaret Rutherford, who steals the film with a performance of batshit comic gurning so dazzling that the film flags whenever she’s not on stage… set, whatever.

“Just photograph it, dear boy” was Coward’s instruction to Lean, who ignored Coward and opened out the play a bit with a few exterior shots and a ride in a sports car. But it remains in essence a stage play that’s been filmed, like The Importance of Being Earnest.

Coward being second only to Wilde in terms of aphoristic pizzazz, it bounces along at remarkable speed, and within scant minutes of its opening we’ve been introduced to the main characters – the achingly cynical Charles and Ruth Condomine (Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings), their boring and unimportant friends George and Violet Bradman (Hugh Wakefield, Joyce Carey), and Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford), the medium Charles has hired in as a research aid to give the novel he’s struggling with an injection of bogus spiritualism. He is sure Arcati is a fraud; she’s convinced she isn’t.

Both Charles and Ruth have been married before – quite racy for the 1940s, but then this is life among the “smart set”. But it’s Charles’s dead first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), who arrives from the afterlife during the seance and proceeds to make his life miserable.

 

Kay Hammond, Constance Cumming and Rex Harrison
Three’s an upload? Elvira, Ruth and Charles

 

Two women fighting over Rex Harrison. As in art, so in life. The actor knew what this was all about – two women killed themselves over Sexy Rexy (as Hollywood dubbed him, to his discomfort) during a long career of philandering that also found time for six marriages – he’s perfect casting as Charles.

The rest of the film is essentially a joust with three people at the tilt – Charles, Ruth and Elvira, with Madame Arcati dropping in now and again to liven things up when they flag, as they sadly do.

What a vision of the well-to-do English lifestyle it paints – dressing for dinner, table linen as crisp as the Condomines’ vowels, an Englishman’s home is his castle, servants, discussions about what cook will make for lunch, and so on.

The fact that it looks so great and that you can see how exquisitely well made the clothes are (even those of Arcati, who’s not meant to be worldly in the least) comes down to the use of Technicolor to shoot it – DP is Ronald Neame, a towering talent who could turn his hand to any aspect of film-making. He’s also one of the writers of this adaptation, but was also a notable director (The Poseidon Adventure) and producer (Brief Encounter).

A film released in 1945, in the aftermath of war, and concerned with dead people having an afterlife is obviously going to have a constituency, but Coward’s genius is to make Blithe Spirit a comedy, and one that’s toying throughout with the idea of a threesome between Charles and his two wives.

Unspoken sexual frisson or not, without Margaret Rutherford, who pushes her chest out comically whenever she can, it just wouldn’t have the same dash. She was a large reason why the play was a smash in London’s West End and she’s a large reason why the film continues to be very watchable.

Watch it back to back with the 2020 remake starring Judi Dench as Madame Arcati and it becomes even more apparent what’s its real killer aspect – the bounce, bounce, bounce of Coward’s writing. The comedy calisthenics of Rutherford’s bosom can’t compete.

 

Blithe Spirit – Watch it/buy at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021