Review: A Madcap Noël Coward Play Gets a Problematic, Loveless Adaptation in Latest Blithe Spirit

Although it has been a while since I’ve revisited the 1945 David Lean adaptation of Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, I’ve always counted it as one of my favorite early works by the director. It’s a playful comedy about a writer seeking inspiration for his latest work by hiring a mystic to perform a seance, which results in the writer’s late first wife coming back as a ghost only he can see, much to the chagrin of his current wife. In this latest take on the material (marking the feature filmmaking debut of British TV veteran Edward Hall and writer Piers Ashworth), Dan Stevens plays writer Charles Condomine, who is suffering writers block as he attempts to work his way through his first screenplay, an adaptation of an early novel of his. While the story in this latest adaptation plays out largely the same as the original, it feels problematically dated and not especially funny.

Blithe Spirit Image courtesy of IFC Films

With second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) by his side (her father also happens to be producing the movie in question), Charles seeks inspiration by inviting Madame Acarti (Judi Dench) to his home to “perform” a conjuring act for them and some friends. Although no particular spirits are requested, Charles’ first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann) appears soon after, appearing only to Charles and not quite understanding that she died some five years earlier. She seems more than a little miffed that her husband isn’t her husband any longer and has remarried, but as they interact, it becomes clear that she’s still very much in love with him, despite the fact that he apparently wrote every novel with major (uncredited) contributions from her. Before long, she’s helping him write his screenplay—more like dictating it to him while he giggles at her plot machinations.

Aside from my finding all three of the main characters annoying—in some cases appallingly so—Blithe Spirit makes it nearly impossible to like any of these characters, if for no other reason than their inconsistencies. Charles needs Elvira around but can’t stand her demands from beyond the grave; at one point, with Ruth asleep in bed next to them, Elvira even forces him to have sex with her, seemingly against his will, which is a major issue. Outside of the moral implications, the film establishes that anyone attempting to touch Elvira passes right through her, so how does that sex work exactly? Elvira seems to go back and forth between hating Charles for any number of reasons to making it clear she can’t live without him. She begins by trying to kill Ruth, but eventually decides that killing Charles (so he can join her as a ghost) makes more sense. I’m not sure how she knows that will actually work, but these are questions left to less flighty folks.

Ruth is probably the most sympathetic character of the bunch, but she seems more consumed with Charles getting his screenplay done to make her father happy than because she actually cares about her husband, making her motivations suspect. When she finds out Elvira is around, she’s understandably less than thrilled, but the fact that Charles is making progress on his screenplay makes Elvira’s presence more of a necessary evil than anything unforgivable. I think the film is meant to have a bit of a madcap quality to it, but there’s a degree of seriousness to the proceedings that makes the whole situation seem silly although the consequences feel more based in reality. The outlandish nature of everything is lost like so much vapor.

It’s a shame too, because the look of the film is spectacular, from the breathtaking architecture and layout of the Condomine home and grounds, where most of the action takes place, to the old British film industry details when the film starts production (starring Greta Garbo and Clark Gable!). Blithe Spirit seems to go out of its way to make every character grating and unlikable in waves—sometimes we feel bad for someone’s situation; other times we feel they’re getting exactly what they deserve. In the end, the film is an elegantly packaged mess with no signs of actual love between any of the characters—all of whom are supposedly in love with at least one other person in this story. It's a shame, because these actors are so talented and likable, but not in this movie.

The film opens today theatrically at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.