Empty and unfunny, this telling of the popular story is utterly awful on all accounts. I have watched this so you don't have to.
You should only remake something if you have something new to say, right? It is the current pitfall of modern Hollywood with numerous remakes and reboots failing to match the original’s novelty and come across as mere cash magnets. Such is Blithe Spirit, a 2020 remake of David Lean’s 1945 film, which in turn was adapted from the popular play by Noel Coward. In this awful, empty production, the epitome of remake failure is depicted.
The story is a simple one: in 1937 Charles Condomine, a struggling writer, invites a mystical medium and clairvoyant round to conduct a séance, which the former thinks will remedy his writer’s block. However the séance summons the ghost of Charles’ dead ex-wife Elvira, whom only he can see and hear. This brings him into conflict with his current wife, Ruth. ‘Comedy’ ensues. Playing Charles is Dan Stevens, an actor who at one point could have been a potential Bond. After this, the notion has somewhat staled. And in the role of the medium Madame Arcati is Dame Judi Dench, who by this point should really be having a stern talking to with her agent. The two wives are brought to life (pun intended) by Isla Fisher and Leslie Mann. It is a strange cast and none of them deliver.
Coward’s play never leaves Charles’ countryside mansion and, after telling Lean to “just photograph [the play], dear boy” the 1945 film only leaves the house towards the end in a slight narrative change. Perhaps the only thing going for this shoddy remake is that it veers away from the theatrical quality of the source material and opens the world of 1930s England to encompass a variety of sets and places. But the downside to this bold decision is that the story feels disjointed and scattered, lacklustre in its pacing and tonally bizarre. For a film categorised as ‘comedy’, it shows no indication of being one. The performances are flimsy as the cast are served dialogue so boring you can almost see the vanilla specs. Gone is Coward’s sharp wit or Lean’s handsome mastery of the English language; an impact that recalls how low the bar for good dialogue has become in Western filmmaking.
Whereas the 1945 film became famous for its clever Oscar winning effects and its Technicolour photography, this telling of the story does not even try to be bold or experiment with the fun effects that invisible ghosts can bring. Furthermore, the principle idea of this film has also been diminished following the hilarious success of recent BBC sitcom Ghosts, which used long dead spirits in a modern environment. The 1937 setting feels despondent; anachronistic music and paint colours, out-of-time humour, and a very odd fixation with Greta Garbo and 1930s Hollywood make the whole thing forced. A 2020 setting could have yielded a lot more entertainment with Alexas than this mess.
A character remarks “there’s no such thing as an original story” towards the end, which is probably some desperate attempt to make some clever meta-joke. But this is far from clever, and the line only reinforces the notion that in filmmaking, the laziness of a remake is still more appealing than the push for originality.
Blithe Spirit, directed by Edward Hall, is distributed in the UK via Sky, certificate 12A. It’s available to stream now on Sky Cinema/NOW TV.