‘Blithe Spirit’: The Coward’s Way Out
Like many other prolific 20th century writers, Noel Coward – if not entirely forgotten – has now been abbreviated to a handful of clichés; dressing gown, cigarette holder, clipped speech, epigrams. In the same way that Agatha Christie is defined by the drearily rote ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ rather than the far better ‘Endless Night’, Coward’s most famous piece is probably ‘Blithe Spirit’ when it should be ‘Design for Living’.
‘Blithe Spirit’ was filmed to perfection by David Lean with Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings and Kay Hammond, so why remake it? Well, Coward is a brand now and Englishness is a saleable commodity, from the mediocre film version of ‘The Dig’ to an execrably bad remake of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.
Coward deserves more. The enfant terrible whose hit play ‘Vortex’ tackled drug addiction when he was 25, daringly sexualised his work, subverting norms. ‘Blithe Spirit’ was short, dry, sharp and rather deliciously cruel. One minor exchange runs (from memory of the original):
‘Isn’t it funny that your maid and cook should both suffer accidents on the same day?’
‘Yes, if that sort of thing amuses you.’
Forgive the mansplaining but one has to be awake to the class layer in that. The questioner’s social position is a tad lower than the answerer, so that the inappropriate use of ‘funny’ does not go unnoticed by the latter.
Lean’s version (complete with terrific special effects) had a green-tinged Elvira as an amused sexual tease, watching on and causing chaos. She doesn’t care about the consequences because she’s no longer involved with human follies.
But in the new version such subtleties can be thrown out, along with Coward’s script, the baby and the bathwater. In comes slapstick and old-fashioned smutty jokes.
Charles Condomine’s first wife, now deceased, is accidentally brought back by a medium, and has fun unpicking her husband’s present marriage. The role of the medium is traditionally a star cameo cameo – Angela Lansbury was still trolling around the London stage as Madame Arcati in recent memory.
The plot is a reworking of the theme Coward returns to again and again; sexual hypocrisy. His joke is that Charles Condomine’s first wife can still awaken him sexually even though she’s dead, and his living wife can’t compete.
Not here, though, as two equally annoying wives shriek and gurn their way through the plot. Dan Stevens as Condomine throws himself across rooms like Buster Keaton with St Vitus’ Dance. I fear Mr Stevens needs to find someone who can direct him very soon or his remaining credibility will vanish.
Of course everything has to be over-explained now, so everyone has backstories. Who thought it was a good idea to explain Madame Arcati’s motivation? Poor Judi Dench, failing to erase the memory of Margaret Rutherford, is introduced flying across a stage, from which she is dropped thirty feet into the orchestra pit. An old lady whose charm in the original begins with her pedalling a bicycle is now chucked from a great height. It doesn’t build credibility for what follows. But hey, it’s comedy and that means lots of people screaming and falling over. The result is a disastrous parody that exists to let the plebs see some nice Art Deco dresses and crockery.
The Merchant/Ivory films were once accused by hit-and-miss director Alan Parker of being from the ‘Laura Ashley school of filmmaking’, but thanks to Ruth Prawa Jhabvala’s intelligent, incisive scripts they were the exact opposite.’Blithe Spirit’ belongs to the ‘Carry on Camping’ school of filmmaking.
Director Edward Hall and writer Piers Ashworth (the names alone should give you a clue as to why they tackle English Heritage cinema) have committed the very sin that dooms most British films; they’ve failed to trust the audience. So they now have on their hands what is easily the worst film of the new year – and I suspect we’ll be saying the same at the year’s end.
Whenever I sell the Bryant & May series to yet another British production company my heart sinks as I listen to the producers tell me; ‘We need to appeal to the Americans.’ When I suggested Toby Jones for Arthur Bryant he was turned down with ‘He’s not big in America’. The Englishness of ‘Blithe Spirit’ aims for the Downton Abbey crowd, but even this low target is lowered. Yet it all could have been so easy if only they’d trusted the words.