For the fourth filmed version of Noel Coward's hit stage play "Blithe Spirit," director Edward Hall and his battery of script writers have managed to keep much of the ditzy original flavor of the Coward piece - it's still set in 1930s England - but also make it accessible to and funny for modern audiences.
The basic plotline is that Charles Condomine, an alcoholic novelist, has been hired to adapt one of his books into a Hollywood-bound screenplay. But he's suffering from writer's block, and can't type a word. Hold on, the problem is bigger than that. He isn't the person who wrote those books. Never mind the writer's block. He's never even been a writer. The books were ghost written, or more likely dictated to him, by his wife Elvira.
But the problems keep growing. Elvira was killed a few years back in a horse-jumping accident, Charles married again, this time to the non-storyteller Ruth, and his "writing" dried up. More complications: Through a series of strange events, Charles and Ruth meet up with the fraudulent medium Madame Arcati, who inadvertently conjures up the spirit of Elvira, who only Charles can see and hear. What could go comically wrong? A lot!
Played in past versions by Rex Harrison, Dirk Bogarde, and even Noel Coward, Charles is here portrayed by Dan Stevens, best known to adult audiences as Matthew Crawley on "Downton Abbey," to kids as the Beast in the live-action "Beauty and the Beast" and to superhero fans as David Haller in "Legion."
In "Blithe Spirit," he - along with most of his cast members - gets to pull out all the stops regarding physical and emotive comedy. There are some pratfalls, some eyes going wide, some facial expressions that are completely agog, and a great deal of nicely done delivery of comic dialogue.
Charles is the focal point of the story, as he causes plenty of things to happen, and all sorts of things happen to him. But he's certainly not alone. Rounding out what should be considered an ensemble piece are an excitable Leslie Mann as Elvira, a sometimes (comically) annoying Isla Fisher as Ruth, and an addled, and very funny, Judi Dench as Madame Arcati.
It's a story that entails fantasy, jealousy, and a wildly, almost dizzily raucous atmosphere, especially in scenes that feature Charles trying to have conversations with both the now-jealous Ruth and the crafty Elvira (who will help him with his screenplay, and has truly become a ghostwriter) at the same time. The dilemma, of course, is that Charles and Ruth can see and hear and communicate with each other, only Charles can see and hear and talk with Elvira, and Elvira can see and hear both of them. Yes, it gets confusing, and a little whacky.
It also gets complicated when, for instance, Charles and Ruth's friends, the Bradmans (Julian Rhind-Tutt and Emilia Fox) get involved in a séance, or when Charles has to answer to Ruth's demanding father, Henry (Simon Kunz), who wants Charles to work faster on his already-late script).
Different sorts of comedy come out of people wondering if certain events are "one-off psychic delusions," by some terrifically choreographed physical chaos, and by most of the cast's fast-paced delivery of snappy dialogue. There's also a great moment where Charles gets a classic punch to the nose.
There are going to be some Noel Coward purists out there who won't accept that his work has been tampered with, but those same people probably won't accept this adaptation as being a little hipper, quite a bit funnier, than the original. One of the main pleasures I got out of it is that I hadn't seen any previous versions, so had nothing to compare it to. I found it to be very refreshing, even when the comedy turned to comeuppance, and never missed a beat.
"Blithe Spirit" is now playing in select theaters and on VOD.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.