- Emma Simmonds
- 11 January 2021
A cracking cast do their best to breathe fresh life into this enjoyable but dated farce
Dan Stevens has done a fine job of distancing himself from his pretty dull role in Downton Abbey, playing a genetically modified killer soldier, a sleazy singer, a superhero and a beast in recent years. He often looks like he's having a hoot, and although Blithe Spirit returns him to period dress and received pronunciation it certainly seems like it would have been a fun film to make. And, showing off his flair for exuberant comedy, Stevens is just about the best thing in it.
This ghostly farce is, of course, the creation of playwright Noël Coward. First performed in the West End in 1941, it made its screen debut in 1945 in a version directed by David Lean and starring Rex Harrison, with the show gloriously stolen by Margaret Rutherford (who also appeared in the original stage production), playing a dotty medium in one of her best loved performances. TV and theatre director Edward Hall (who worked on the aforementioned Downton Abbey, and Spooks) doesn't bring a great deal of visual ingenuity to the table, but his take is 'spirited' enough and he's assembled some game players.
Stevens plays Charles Condomine, a mystery novelist suffering from writer's block, with Isla Fisher as his exasperated second wife Ruth. Judi Dench – no less – is this film's Madame Arcati, the seemingly shoddy spiritualist, exposed on stage as a fraud, who inadvertently brings Charles's ex Elvira (Leslie Mann) back from the grave, following an unexpectedly successful séance, causing all manner of bother.
If Stevens throws himself into the shamelessly old-fashioned role of harassed husband with admirable aplomb, Mann near matches him with her mischievous twinkle and knack for the screwball style, and when Fisher gets to let her hair down she's a riot too. The period stylings can be delightful but the material does feel dated and rather like Sunday afternoon entertainment. Meanwhile, Dench for all her believability isn't really on the same page as the rest of the cast regarding the madcap nature of the comedy, playing the part a little too straight – a particular shame given Rutherford's iconic efforts in the same role.
Available to watch on Sky Cinema from Fri 15 Jan.