Where first-time feature director Edward Hall’s retelling does not depart from Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit is spiritualist medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) holding a botched seance at the home of writer Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) and his wife, Ruth (Isla Fisher). Madame Arcati doesn’t know she’s part of Charles’ research; he doesn’t know she’s genuine and about to accidentally summon the spirit of his first wife and muse, Elvira (Leslie Mann).
Hall achieves the right tone of joyful chaos to make this story of misrule a natural holiday watch. However, with a perfectly selected cast and a script that holds so much cultural affection, there’s a strange sense of apology in this reimagining of Noel Coward’s play as there is celebration of it. Hall’s eye for cast and setting allow a great sense of place while giving the actors due space to shine, but his background in theatre and television make it a particularly strange decision that rather explore the warmth and darkness, both are consistently upstaged and undermined by a tinkly soundtrack to remind us what is happening is light comedy, losing all sense of emotional connection even in the darkest and most intriguing moments. Elvira’s plans for getting Charles back, and how they backfire as the dear departed’s influence over the living grows, is too lightly presented for emotional investment, making for a particularly awkward ending in which rather than rise above the past, Charles is brought to their level in a pseudo-feminist final exit that does not sit convincingly and feels like a choice imposed on characters and world rather than coming through them.
There’s a pervading sense of the ghosts of versions of this rewritten story this film could have been: the eloquent visual opening that introduces Charles’s world of wealthy writer’s block could have created a world of its own, but having shown its teeth doesn’t continue to use them. The Condomines’ maid Edith (Aimee Ffion-Edwards) is an underused delight, her sense of the strained relationships poised on the edge of permanent disaster setting up the drama and most responsible for sustaining it. But the wit, danger, and dark humour of those first few minutes is sacrificed for self-conscious lightness that leaves us wondering what would have come through if it were less afraid of the dark.