Review: ‘Blithe Spirit’ (2021), starring Dan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Isla Fisher and Judi Dench

April 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Leslie Mann and Dan Stevens in “Blithe Spirit” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Blithe Spirit” (2021) 

Directed by Edward Hall

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1937 in England and briefly in Los Angeles, the comedic film “Blithe Spirit” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person and a few Indians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Struggling with writer’s block, a novelist-turned-screenwriter is haunted by the ghost of his dead ex-wife, who plots to break up his marriage to his current wife.

Culture Audience: “Blithe Spirit” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Noel Coward play on which the movie is based or the 1945 “Blithe Spirit” movie, but the 2021 movie version of “Blithe Spirit” is vastly inferior.

Pictured clockwise, from left to right, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Isla Fisher, Judi Dench, Dan Stevens and Emilia Fox in “Blithe Spirit” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The 2021 version of “Blithe Spirit” is like a meal that seems to have all the right ingredients, but it turns out to be dull and unappealing mush that will leave people with a bad taste in their mouths. Even though this comedic film (based on the Noel Coward play of the same name) has terrific and talented cast members who have done much better work elsewhere, this “Blithe Spirit” movie’s screenwriting and direction fall flat on almost every level. There are some movies that are so bad that they’re entertaining, and there are some movies that are so bad that they’re boring. Unfortunately, this “Blithe Spirit” remake falls into the latter category.

People watching this version of “Blithe Spirit” might already know about the critically acclaimed 1945 movie version of “Blithe Spirit,” directed by David Lean. The 2021 version of “Blithe Spirit, ” directed by Edward Hall, lacks much of the charm of the 1945 “Blithe Spirit.” The lethargic and simple-minded screenplay of this “Blithe Spirit” remake was written by Nick Morcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth. (Morcroft and Leonard are two of the movie’s producers.)

The actors do the best that they can, but they strain for laughs that are few and far in between in this joyless story of a love triangle gone awry because of a vengeful ghost. In “Blithe Spirit,” which takes place in 1937, the love triangle consists of a writer who has a crumbling marriage to a socialite when he becomes haunted by the spirit of his dead ex-wife, who was his most important muse. The ghost of the ex-wife then causes all sorts of mischief in order for her ex-husband’s current marriage to fail.

In the “Blithe Spirit” remake, the person at the center of the love triangle is also the story’s protagonist: British writer Charles Condomine (played by Dan Stevens) is a successful crime novelist who has been hired by a major movie studio to write his first screenplay, which is based on one of his novels. Charles has been experiencing writer’s block, and he tries to hide his fear that he won’t finish the screenplay on time.

Charles’ loyal and adoring wife Ruth (played by Isla Fisher) tries to be as understanding as possible, but there’s an added layer of pressure for Charles to finish this screenplay: Ruth’s father Henry Mackintosh (played by Simon Kunz) is a high-ranking executive of the movie studio that has commissioned Charles to write the screenplay. Charles is writing a crime drama/thriller movie that the studio hopes to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock (played by Peter Rogers), a master filmmaker of suspenseful movies.

Other “celebrity cameos” in “Blithe Spirit” include appearances from Greta Garbo (played by Stella Stocker), Clark Gable (played by Jaymes Sygrove), filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille (played by Colin Stinton) and notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played by Georgina Rich), with none of these cameos adding much impact to the story. These cameos happen when Charles visits the famed production facility Pinewood Studios in Iver, England, and when he goes to Hollywood.

You can tell already that the “Blithe Spirit” movie remake did not stay true to the original play and movie, which had a small cast of characters and a small number of locations. The “Blithe Spirit” movie remake overstuffs the story with too many characters and jumps around in too many places. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to distract viewers with a bunch of gimmicky scenes that are new to this “Blithe Spirit” movie remake, as a smokescreen for the sad reality that this movie doesn’t have the verve of the original “Blithe Spirit.”

The vengeful ex-wife who comes back to haunt Charles is his first wife Elvira (played by Leslie Mann), who got divorced from Charles before she died in a horse-jumping competition. Elvira is supposed to be shrewish and seductive, so that when she reappears in Charles’ life, he has a hard time resisting her manipulations. In this “Blithe Spirit” remake, Elvira is American (she was British in the other versions), presumably because Mann, who is American in real life, couldn’t or didn’t want to do a British accent for the movie.

Mann has been typecast in several movies, because she usually plays a character who’s a mild-mannered suburban American mother. Mann has a sing-song tone to her speaking voice that sounds like she could be a kindergarten teacher. And so, movie audiences might find it hard to believe Mann in the role of a spiteful and homicidal ex-wife who doesn’t hesitate to plot the death of her rival Ruth.

The role of Elvira needed to be played by someone who is a more convincing femme fatale but who also has the talent to carry this role with comedic charisma. So although Mann is talented, she is miscast in this role because she doesn’t come across as the least bit dangerous throughout the movie. Stevens portrays Charles as an egotistical, insecure buffoon who won’t find much sympathy with viewers of this movie. Fisher has the most thankless role as Ruth, who’s supposed to be the “good wife,” but even Ruth’s patience gets tested by Charles’ erratic shenanigans.

At the beginning of “Blithe Spirit,” the passion has all but disappeared from Charles and Ruth’s nearly five-year marriage. (Ruth and Charles do not have children together, and neither did Charles and Elvira.) And now, Charles is stressed-out over finishing a screenplay that he has problems even starting. He doesn’t like distractions when he’s writing, so this need for isolation causes even more discontent and alienation in his marriage to Ruth.

Ruth notices Charles’ sullen mood over his writer’s block and says to him: “You’ve been commissioned to write a 90-page screenplay, not ‘War and Peace.’ I don’t see how it can be problematic to adapt a story you’ve already written.”

Ruth continues, “I’m sorry, Charles. I just don’t know how long I can go on like this, with you stuck in an imaginary world and me alone in the real one. I miss you. I miss us.” Charles replies, with a hint of guilt. “So do I.”

This “Blithe Spirit” remake tries to appeal to a modern audience by putting more sex and drugs in the story but without anything that’s too raunchy. Early on in the movie, it’s mentioned that part of the reason why Charles and Ruth’s marriage is faltering is because he has erectile dysfunction. Charles talks about it with his close friend Mr. Bradman (played by Julian Rhind-Tutt), a doctor who gives Charles some benzedrine pills that Bradman says should solve the problem. Charles is hesitant, but Bradman says he’s been taking the same pills and it’s done wonders for his energy and sex life.

And so, Charles takes benzedrine and suddenly has a burst of energy that catches Ruth off guard. He takes her on a bicycle ride in a wooded area and vigorously pedals as if he’s in contestant in a bike race. And later, Ruth is pleasantly surprised to find out that Charles is interested in reviving their sex life, and he’s a more enthusiastic lover than he was in recent months. There’s no explicit sex in the movie, but the sexual activity is either depicted in mild sex scenes or talked about in the story.

With Charles and Ruth’s marriage seemingly back on track to becoming happy again, they go on a double date with Bradman and his wife (played by Emilia Fox) to a theater stage show to see a well-known psychic named Madame Cecily Arcati (played by Judi Dench). The Bradmans don’t have first names in this version of “Blithe Spirit,” but they are called George and Violet in previous versions. Charles doesn’t really take this psychic/fortune teller show seriously and only goes out of slight amusement and curiosity.

Also in the audience are two of Charles and Ruth’s servants: maid Edith (played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and cook Edna (played by Michele Dotrice), who have the cheap seats down below, while the Condomines and the Bradfords have top-tier balcony tickets. Most of what Edith and Edna do in the movie is react to Charles’ increasingly unhinged state of mind the more that Elvira irritates him. Some of the other people who are seen in the Condomine house are the couple’s other friends who are written as vague characters who don’t have much to say and only show up when there’s a house party.

“Blithe Spirit” tries to infuse some slapstick comedy by having Madame Arcati fall from a rope during a levitating trick in front of the audience. This mishap leads to her being exposed as a fraud, which causes an uproar from audience members. Many of the people in the crowd demand refunds. It’s a rather unnecessary scene, unless you were really waiting your whole life to see a movie with a Judi Dench stunt double taking a humiliating tumble on stage.

While all this chaos is going on, Charles sneaks backstage to talk to Madame Arcati in her dressing room. He introduces himself as a crime writer and tells Madame Arcati: “Like me, you occasionally have to employ artistic license to entertain the masses.” Madame Arcati responds with a “poor me” tone of voice when she talks about her audiences: “They expect me to deliver a spectacle, a transcendental miracle, night after night.”

Madame Arcati is embarrassed over her fiasco performance, which caused her to lose money due to all the refunds. Her shame is somewhat alleviated when Charles gives her another job opportunity, albeit a temporary one. Charles asks Madame Arcati to do a private séance at his home. He tells her that he, his wife Ruth and “influential guests” will be attending the séance. Madame Arcati willingly obliges.

Charles is hoping that the séance will inspire ideas for his writing and and possibly help him get over his writer’s block. The Condomines and Bradfords don’t take the séance that seriously until some spooky things start happening. Madame Arcati says that the spirit in the room wants to contact Charles. And then, Madame Arcati convulses and the room’s French windows blow open.

Madame Arcati is visibly shaken when she leaves the house. However, the couples have a laugh over what happened. Ruth and Charles won’t be laughing when they find out that the séance has conjured up the spirit of Elvira, who doesn’t waste time in trying to wreck Charles and Ruth’s marriage. First, Elvira tries to drive Ruth crazy, and then Elvira turns to more devious methods to get Ruth out of Charles’ life.

While all of this is happening, Charles is the only one who can see Elvira’s ghost. And so, much of the contrived comedy in “Blithe Spirit” is about Charles talking to Elvira, but other people think he’s going crazy because he looks like he’s talking to himself. Another scenario that happens frequently is that Charles says something insulting to Elvira, but someone in the room thinks Charles is actually saying the insult to them. Tension and arguments then ensue.

Elvira can be maddening to Charles, but she also inspires him and gives him some of his best ideas. It should come as no surprise that Charles overcomes his writer’s block with Elvira’s help. However, Elvira wants credit for her contributions, and that leads to more conflicts between Charles and Elvira. And that’s apparently an excuse for this cringeworthy line to be in this movie, when Charles utters to Elvira: “What am I supposed to say? That I have a ghost writer?”

Charles has unresolved love/hate feelings toward Elvira, so there’s a lot of back-and-forth over whether or not he wants to save his marriage to Ruth or end it. Elvira makes it clear that she wants Charles all to herself. Does this movie really expect people to believe that Elvira’s can come fully back to life, not just as a vision that only Charles can see?

Yes, it does, because later in the story, Madame Arcati becomes the second person who can see the ghost of Elvira, and she has this declaration about Elivra’s spirit: “If the returning spirit feels welcome, it can gradually become physically substantial.” There are some catty showdowns between the main female characters in the movie, but no real suspense or compelling dialogue.

For example, this is the type of bland comment that Elvira gives when she tries to threaten Madame Arcati: “I’ll haunt you until the day I die!” For someone who’s supposed to be a great writer, Elvira can’t even say things that are very witty, due to the lackluster screenwriting for this movie.

The 1945 movie version of “Blithe Spirit” starred Rex Harrison as Charles Condomine; Constance Cummings as Ruth Condomine; Kay Hammond as Elvira Condomine; and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati. There was a natural-looking rapport that the actors had with the dialogue that’s missing from this “Blithe Spirit” remake. Oftentimes, the actors in this “Blithe Spirit” remake give little pauses as if they’re expecting it to be filled by a laugh track. And the slapstick comedy in this remake isn’t that special.

This version of “Blithe Spirit” has unnecessary detours in the plot, including Madame Arcati going to the London Spiritual Alliance and asking national director Harry Price (played by James Fleet) for help. He refuses because she’s been suspended from the alliance because of the con job at the theater were the audience demanded refunds. The Harry Price character is an example of a new character that ends up being irrelevant to this story.

Madame Arcati is a widow who lives alone and talks to her dead husband Donald as if he were still alive. Donald is mentioned enough times that you just know that there’s a reason for it in this movie. Madame Arcati is written as a watered-down character that vacillates between being assertive and pathetic. It’s the kind of unchallenging, shallow role that Dench can do in her sleep. Viewers of this monotonous movie might also be put to sleep.

A scene that’s new to the remake is a prank that Elvira plays on Ruth, when Elvira spikes Ruth’s drink with Charles’ benzedrine during a party that the Condomines are having in their home. Ruth has no idea, of course, and she ends up getting high out of her mind, stripping to her underwear in front of the guests, and getting frisky with Charles in the bedroom during the party. There’s some ghostly voyeurism that Elvira has with Ruth and Charles, but it comes across as creepy, not hilarious.

The filmmakers of “Blithe Spirit” clearly wanted to make this a sexier version of the play and original movie, but they also wanted to keep the movie “family friendly.” And so, the result is a comedy that tries to be adult-oriented but is toned down to the point of blandness, in order for it not to be inappropriate for underage children. It’s as wishy-washy as Charles’ decision making in this love triangle.

Adding to the misfires in this version of “Blithe Spirit” is Simon Boswell’s annoying musical score that sounds like it was made for a TV sitcom, not a movie that’s supposed to take place in 1937. The reality is that “Blithe Spirit” is not the type of movie that’s going to appeal to underage kids anyway. And so, if the filmmakers wanted this “Blithe Spirit” to be sexier than previous versions, it should’ve just gone all in with some clever raunchiness and with a better-quality screenplay.

Movie audiences don’t mind remakes/reboots if these remakes/reboots bring a lot of fresh ideas while staying true to some of the basics that the original project had. Sadly for this version of “Blithe Spirit,” it wallows in stale concepts that wouldn’t even past muster in mediocre comedies made for television. It seems as if Charles Condomine’s writer’s block extended to this movie’s screenplay, which is lacking in the spark and wit that made the original “Blithe Spirit” (the play and the movie) such a treat.

IFC Films released “Blithe Spirit” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 19, 2021.