Blithe Spirit
February 26, 2021 • Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) — Even the most venerable source material may benefit from being dusted off and given the odd nip and tuck.

But restraint and respect are generally called for, especially when the original author is actor, playwright, composer, lyricist and performer Noel Coward, arguably the 20th century’s most accomplished all-around entertainer.

Such caution has not been observed by screenwriters Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth with the predictable consequence that “Blithe Spirit” (IFC), director Edward Hall’s very loose updating of Coward’s classic 1941 stage comedy, is a woeful mess. Among the blemishes introduced to the glistening surface of the play are tiresome sex gags considered necessary, no doubt, for a contemporary audience.

As part of the research for a screenplay he’s writing, celebrated crime novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) invites Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), a well-meaning but inept medium, to perform a seance at his home. During the ritual, however, she inadvertently conjures up the specter of Charles’ late wife, Elvira (Leslie Mann), significantly complicating his relationship with his current spouse, Ruth (Ilsa Fisher).

Using Coward’s basic setup as no more than a springboard, the trio of script collaborators ill-advisedly substitute their merely serviceable dialogue for his sparkling exchanges and displace his urbane wit in favor of broad physical humor.

Thus Charles’ frustration over the writer’s block from which he’s suffering inspires him to tear a largely blank piece of paper from his typewriter and chew on it. Later, enraged by Elvira’s maddening misbehavior, he ends up chasing her around with a croquet mallet.

As for the bedroom-themed jokes already mentioned, including a brief passage in which a duo of minor characters treats adultery as harmless fun, they turn out to be as flat as they are gratuitous. Similarly needless is the introduction of amphetamine pills, originally as a cure for Charles’ impotence, subsequently as a means of mischief-making for Elvira.

All that remains, amid the tedium, are lovely-to-look-at Art Deco interiors — the action is set in 1937 — and pleasant panoramas of the English countryside, including the White Cliffs of Dover. Such marginal rewards hardly make up for the disfiguring of this durable property, though, especially since a thoroughly faithful and pitch-perfect 1945 screen version of it is easily available.

The film contains comically-treated occult activity, drug use, a couple of scenes of marital intimacy, sexual humor and references, including an impotency theme, at least one use of profanity and a few milder oaths. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.          

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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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CAPSULE REVIEW

“Blithe Spirit” (IFC)

As part of the research for a screenplay he’s writing, a celebrated crime novelist (Dan Stevens) invites a well-meaning but inept medium (Judi Dench) to conduct a seance at his home, during which she unwittingly conjures up the specter of his late wife (Leslie Mann), significantly complicating his relationship with his current spouse (Ilsa Fisher). Screenwriters Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth use their source material, Noel Coward’s classic 1941 stage comedy, as no more than a springboard, ill-advisedly substituting their merely serviceable dialogue for Coward’s sparkling exchanges, displacing his urbane wit in favor of broad physical humor and introducing bedroom-themed jokes as flat as they are gratuitous. All that remains, under Edward Hall’s direction, are lovely-to-look-at Art Deco interiors and pleasant panoramas of the English countryside. Comically-treated occult activity, drug use, a couple of scenes of marital intimacy, sexual humor and references, including an impotency theme, at least one use of profanity, a few milder oaths. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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CLASSIFICATION

“Blithe Spirit” (IFC) — Catholic News Service classification, A-III — adults. Motion Picture Association rating, PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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