Blithe Spirit review – Judi Dench presides over a deathly farce

Dan Stevens, Leslie Mann and Isla Fisher mug spiritedly but there is little life in this unfunny Noël Coward adaptation

Confidence trick … Blithe Spirit.
Confidence trick … Blithe Spirit. Photograph: Sky Cinema Original/StudioCanal
Confidence trick … Blithe Spirit. Photograph: Sky Cinema Original/StudioCanal
Peter Bradshaw

Last modified on Wed 13 Jan 2021 08.02 EST

The classic Noël Coward comedy about a ghost (first filmed by David Lean in 1945 with Rex Harrison) has now been adapted again, with stage and TV director Edward Hall making his movie debut. It can only be described as an un-reinvention, a tired, dated and unfunny period piece that changes the original plot a bit but offers no new perspective, and no new reason to be doing it in the first place. (Not compared with, say, Matthew Warchus’s stage revival of Coward’s Present Laughter at the Old Vic, with Andrew Scott radically reinventing the leading role.) This film looks unironically like the tatty old musical revue show that Ken Russell imagined for his “meta” adaptation of The Boy Friend.

Dan Stevens plays crime writer Charles Condomine, who has been creatively blocked since the death of his first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann) seven years before, and now tensely remarried to the more uptight Ruth (Isla Fisher). He has the idea of putting a spiritualist into the new movie screenplay he’s working on, and invites a notorious stage medium, Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), to his house to perform a seance, so that he can do some research into the wiles of these confidence tricksters. But, to his astonishment (and Madame Arcati’s), the seance brings back the ghost of Elvira, who wreaks havoc.

Despite the heavyweight cast, the film’s production values are those of a kids’ TV show that might go out on a weekday afternoon. Dench does her best with the role of Madame Arcati, and she even has a notably surreal moment, carrying out an occult ceremony in a beachside cave. But the rest is a festival of mugging and farcical overacting, and the Cowardian style seems brittle without any snap.

• Blithe Spirit is on Sky Cinema from 15 January.

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