“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert,” run the lines in Shelley’s poem To a Skylark. And though there’s plenty of spirit in 2020’s remake of a 1945 film often considered a classic, this bird resolutely fails to take wing.
The basic plot remains the same as the original film (and original play): Charles and Ruth Condomine are a rich couple living in elegant boredom out in the English countryside. He’s a writer struggling with his latest novel. So he gets in a bogus spiritualist, Madame Arcati, to conduct a seance, which waggish Charles will use as background material in his book.
The seance goes oddly right, or wrong. When Madame Arcati asks “Is there anybody there?” a spirit actually appears from the afterlife. It is Charles’s first wife Elvira. And she refuses to go back to wherever she came from. And that’s it: the rest of the film is taken up with much farcical to-ing and fro-ing and a lot of friction between Charles and the two Mrs Condomines, one of which only he can see.
Arch wit of a veddy Noel Coward sort was the prevailing tone of the 1945 original. That’s been replaced by kitsch, reflected in the different takes on the character of Madame Arcati. This one is a fraud and knows it. In the original everyone concerned thought Madame Arcati was bogus but she herself was entirely in earnest about her gift, her calling.
Noel Coward’s original play remains largely intact in the central section set in the Condomines’ elegant house, but early and late scenes try to filmify things a bit – we first meet Madame Arcati at a disastrous West End performance, and towards the end the action shifts to Hollywood, where Charles’s novel is being turned into a movie starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. The name Cecil B DeMille is also mentioned.
It’s a brave departure, but the changes up front mean junking some of the best writing in the original – the rapier repartee of Charles and Ruth in the opening moments of the 1945 original film. The later additions are just creative noodling.
Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens plays Charles. Obviously Stevens has done things other than Downton, but it’s an apt descriptor here because there’s more than a touch of Downton in the upstairs/downstairs gentility (Coward’s fault) and the TV-ish visuals (not Coward’s fault). Director Edward Hall is a Downton alum.
Judi Dench as Madame Arcati realises wisely that she can’t match the scattergun brilliance of Margaret Rutherford’s gangnam physicality and instead relies on vocal inflection for laughs. Sadly, Rutherford did that too. Dench, always brilliantly herself, is able to squeeze comedy out of lines that are not intentionally funny, but even so, glimpsing Rutherford in the rearview mirror, Dench occasionally tips a hat (throws in the towel?) with line readings echoing the turkey gobble of the old Dame.
Isla Fisher is miscast as the second, very-much-alive Mrs C, her Aussie accent breaking through all over the place. She’s also badly served by a screenplay that’s made one real improvement on the original, which had a misogynistic streak a mile wide (two silly women fighting over Rex Harrison’s noble Charles, an obvious shit).
Leslie Mann reaps the rewards of the de-misogynifying (is that even a word?) – the first Mrs C turns out to be a smart operator who had a lot more to do with Charles’s success than he’s ever let on.
On the whole, though, the plot tweaks and the filmic locations at beginning and end don’t add much, and leach away much of the original film’s screwball energy.
No one comes out of it bathed in glory. Mann does best, Dench is acceptable, Stevens makes a fine cad but lacks Rex Harrison’s balancing charm, Fisher is a mistake.
The amazing white modernist house the Condomines live in was built in 1932 and is called Joldwynds. It’s the real deal. It also featured in an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot once, and that’s about where this version of Blithe Spirit sits, as a good-looking, for the most part nicely made and solid piece of construction.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021