Blithe Spirit Review: Film Fails To Entertain Despite Strong Performances

Many films have been made about an artist and his muse — Shakespeare in Love, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Surviving Picasso. Although Blithe Spirit can more accurately be compared to Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, Blithe Spirit, based on the play by Noël Coward, is a silly and uninspired film. It’s fraught with frenetic energy and delightfully charming performances, but Blithe Spirit is not as funny or absurd as it sets out to be.

Set in 1937 England, the film — directed by Edward Hall from an adapted screenplay by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, Nick Moorcroft — follows crime novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens). Blithe Spirit’s opening scene showcases his intense writer’s block. Under deadline and a lot of pressure to adapt one of his novels into a screenplay, Charles longs for the days when he could so easily seek out his muse, his deceased wife Elvira (Leslie Mann). Five years into his marriage to Ruth (Isla Fisher), whose father is directing and producing the film based on Charles’ script, doesn’t spark the same amount of creative output. However, when Charles invites the spiritual medium Madame Cecily Arcati (Judi Dench) over for a séance (as a joke), his life takes a sharp turn into the unexpected when Elvira returns.   

The film is meant to be absurd, but it takes a far more practical approach to the story, which makes it far less entertaining to sit through. The first half is especially silly, and not in the gripping or witty sort of way. Rather, Blithe Spirit slowly plods through its plot like a chore, with its sense of humor lost amid the trite and overbearing aspects of the story. The tone is endearingly jovial, but it’s not enough to carry the story through to the end. The film runs out of creative juices shortly after Elvira’s arrival, struggling to stay afloat thereafter despite her spirited intentions to dissolve Charles’ new marriage and reveal that his story ideas are actually hers.  

The cast, from Stevens’ charismatic and perplexed performance as a struggling writer to Mann’s loving and simultaneously scathing role as the scorned wife, certainly help to uplift the film. Fisher, for all her talents and comedic timing, maddeningly gets little to do outside of being the exasperated wife who is dealt the short end of the stick. However, the themes, meant to offer commentary regarding the nature of the author-muse relationship and the theft of creative ideas without credit, fall short of being as trenchant as they should be. For an absurdist comedy, there’s surprisingly very little humor and when there is, it’s heavy-handed and undermines the entirety of the film and its characters’ plight. 

Blithe Spirit also broaches Orientalist ideas that didn’t need to be in the film for it to have worked. This comes by way of Madame Arcati, who is introduced as an “exotic” mystic who’s traveled the world and has been educated in the ways of spiritual guidance — namely, teachings from Eastern and South Asia. Her stage show is designed as a nod to the region’s architecture, with Arcati herself decked out in a turban. It’s continuously frustrating for films, no matter what era they’re set in, to uphold these outdated stereotypes, especially when it’s only used for show. 

It’s unfortunate because Blithe Spirit has so much potential, all of which is squandered by its inability to fully lean into the absurdity. The costumes and the performances are wonderful, the cinematography inviting the audience into this bright, ridiculous world that is teeming with false bravado and ridiculous twists. However, the plot dawdles and the lack of snappy dialogue and humor is ultimately the film’s downfall. Silly is never a bad thing when done right, but Blithe Spirit misses the mark entirely. 

Blithe Spirit is in select theaters, digital, and on demand on February 19. The film is 95 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for suggestive references and some drug material.

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