It’s not often that Noël Coward plays make their way to the big screen these days. Before director Edward Hall’s 2020 update of Blithe Spirit, it had been 12 years since the last Coward production — director Stephan Elliott’s Easy Virtue (2008) — and another eight before that — director Eric Styles’ Relative Values (2000). That’s really it, as far as 21st-century Coward goes. To be clear, it’s not like the 20th century holds an abundance of Coward adaptations, either. Most received just one or two legitimate adaptations, and most of those predate 1950. It’s not that his work is inaccessible, because other Coward adaptations — like director Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) and director David Lean’s Blithe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945) — remain some of the most highly regarded films of the 20th century. One would think Coward’s plays should have enjoyed countless adaptations at this point. But one look at Hall’s take on Blithe Spirit demonstrates that the unspoken rule of Coward adaptations seems to be that they should remain off-limits.
The 1930s crime novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) has lost his motivation to write. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how close his deadline gets, no matter how many hours he spends facing the typewriter, the words won’t come. It doesn’t really matter, though: Even if he could get something down on paper, it wouldn’t come close to the works that made him famous. This has everything to do with the death of Elvira (Leslie Mann), Charles’s first wife and his one and only inspiration. His new wife, Ruth (Isla Fisher), just doesn’t motivate him like Elvira did, and it’s causing problems both professionally and personally. Tasked with adapting one of his most popular novels into a screenplay but struggling to put fingers to keys, Charles searches high and low for a new muse. He soon finds one in the form of Madame Cecily Arcati (Judi Dench), a hack medium who was publicly disgraced at a botched stage show. Charles invites her to his house to perform a seance, but the ceremony quickly turns from silly to spooky once Madame Arcati summons the ghost of Elvira.
Now back from the dead but visible only to Charles, Elvira’s reappearance causes even further strife in the lives of the Condomines. Charles is once again able to write, but he sounds like a lunatic when he claims to be drawing inspiration from the spirit of his deceased wife. Ruth, already jealous about her husband’s obsession with his first spouse, now has to compete with her for his full attention. There’s also the matter of Elvira’s shock when she discovers that, after she’s only been departed a short time, her loving husband has already remarried. It’s a supernatural love triangle, plain and simple, and not one person seems to have the advantage: Charles is writing again, which pleases Ruth, but Ruth is forced to share Charles with Elvira, which overwhelms Charles, but Elvira has dirt on Charles, which intrigues Ruth, but ... Clearly, it’s a mess. The sooner Madame Arcati can send Elvira back, the better. As it turns out, though, this is much easier said than done.
Although it might sound chaotic, the Condomines’ supernatural circumstance is the perfect opportunity to bring forth witty situational comedy and caustic critique of upper-class behavior in the ’30s. Coward realized this, and his original play capitalizes on it. Unfortunately, screenwriters Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, and Piers Ashworth do him a disservice by squandering it and replacing it with something more high-energy and slapstick-oriented. On paper, this kind of hyperactive humor might be well suited to the lively nature of the story. In practice, it all falls flat. It’s just not that funny, regardless of how hard the key players try to make it work (and they do try hard, to their credit). By needlessly straying from what makes Coward’s comedy so sharp — namely the wry performances and the deadpan delivery — and opting for things like hammy pantomiming and dopey pratfalls, Moorcroft, Leonard, and Ashworth effectively suck Blithe Spirit of most of its life.
Beyond this failed attempt at reworking Coward's comedic style, Moorcroft, Leonard, and Ashworth also employ some major structural changes that only deflate things even more. Although stage-to-screen adaptations are frequently harmed by keeping things too confined to one space, Blithe Spirit is hurt by the decision to stray from the Condomine home and head out into 1930s Hollywood for several set pieces. By broadening the scope and journeying into the world, roping in additional characters and amping up the drama, the filmmakers lose the insular laughs that make Coward’s play so charmingly low-stakes. These flaws will be visible even to those unfamiliar with Coward’s play or Lean’s adaptation of it. It’s not an issue of old versus new or this version versus that one — Hall’s spin on Blithe Spirit simply fails to feel like a fresh, functional film.
Apart from the trio of commendably committed leads, all of whom are doing their best with what they’ve been given, Blithe Spirit’s most alluring element is its colorful, poppy production design. Minty greens, cotton-candy pinks, and golden yellows make up much of the interior of the home, and — paired with the equally alluring costumes — it’s all pretty fun to look at, if nothing else. Credit is due to the production designer, the art directors, the set decorator, and the costume designer for making Blithe Spirit work aesthetically, at least. For this reason and a handful of others previously noted, Hall's Blithe Spirit is far from a total failure. If anything, it’s a lesson for others looking to find the next big IP in the hits of Hollywood’s past: Rather than attempt to revive the work of Noël Coward, it might be best to just let it rest in peace.
Blithe Spirit is now available to rent from major online platforms.