Blithe Spirit

Leslie Mann, Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher, Judi Dench

 

“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 That’s been replaced by kitsch, reflected in the different takes on the character of Madame Arcati.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.

 

Madame Arcati conducts the seance
“Is there anybody there?”

 

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 leech 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.

 

 

 

 

The original 1945 Blithe Spirit (restored)  – Watch it/buy it on Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Godmothered

Eleanor and Mackenzie in the snow

Godmothered is Disney product. Written to a Disney template, cast, directed, lit and edited in an efficient business-like Disney way, it’s a comedy fairytale that popped off the production line and onto screens wrapped up all nicely and ready to go.

Its story even resembles an existing Disney film, Enchanted, the one about a fairytale character having a fish out of water experience in New York – comedy, romance, the full nine yards.

We’re in Boston this time, snow-encrusted, twinkly, Christmasy Boston, where magic is about to happen when klutzy trainee godmother Eleanor (Jillian Bell) arrives on an “assignment” to help out the little girl who wrote to her asking for help. Should Eleanor fail to help the little girl it’s curtains for her fellow godmothers, who thanks to brutal modern management diktats are threatened with redesignation as tooth fairies due to a lack of interest in their godmothering offer.

But, wires having got crossed and time having passed, the little girl is no longer little. Mackenzie has managed to grow up, get married, have two kids and lose her husband and is now a character more familiar in a Disney movie than even a fairy godmother – the sad, stressed urban professional with no time for kids, family, love etc etc.

These are the familiar arcs – the godmother is on a Shrek-style quest to save her magical kingdom, while Mackenzie is going to save her soul by being a bit less like a working woman. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Familiar, huh? You know what – Godmothered is great. Corny, obvious but great, a smile here, a tear there, cosy and gaudy as a Christmas jumper, the sort of film you’re convinced you’ve already seen but sit through all over again just because.

Tobogganing down a hill minus toboggan
Eleanor goes tobogganing… minus toboggan

To call the performances cookie-cutter sounds like an insult but isn’t. Everyone hits exactly the spot they’re meant to be hitting – Bell as the accident-prone naive godmother with wobbly wand skills and a huge heart, Isla Fisher as the cute, hassled news producer, Santiago Cabrera as the possible love interest co-worker, Jane Curtin as a wicked witch/evil queen figure, the godmother-in-chief who wants to close everything down. Everyone else – the kids with their own little problems, the dizzy narrator, the bonkers news anchors at the TV station where Mackenzie works, Mackenzie’s homely confidant sister, all slot perfectly into place, marshalled by director Sharon Maguire, who directed the two good Bridget Jones movies (one and three) and shows a similar skill here at just making everything work properly.

Write your own checklist and tick them off – a comedy animal (a raccoon called Gary), a kid throwing snowballs, a mean boss with a Scrooge-like disposition, classic music on the soundtrack (from Julie Andrews to Earth Wind and Fire) and on it goes.

The rom is Fisher’s, the com is Bell’s – both handle it well, though it’s Bell’s film by a country mile and towards the end it’s noticeable that things starts to sag when the fairy godmother is forced off the screen by one of those she-goes-away-but-comes-back-triumphant plot twists.

However, that necessary absence is kept to an almost indecent minimum. This film knows what it’s doing. Chalk another one up to Disney.


© Steve Morrissey 2020