America has Marvel; Britain has Downton Abbey. If Iron Man and the Hulk set the tone for blockbusters in the last decade, a similar influence has been enjoyed in the UK by Julian Fellowes’ upstairs-downstairs saga. The show may now be over but its memory is still the cue for Blithe Spirit, a cream tea dress-up in which Downton star Dan Stevens and another graduate of the series, director Edward Hall, revive Noël Coward’s supernatural frolic.
Only minor adjustments have been made. Just the script, thrown out wholesale. In place of Coward’s bons mots, three credited writers now offer as climactic punchline a nickname for the lead character’s penis. Godspeed Global Britain.
The backdrop is 1937 Home Counties, the pastiche frantic. Stevens is crime writer Charles Condomine, deadline looming, soused before breakfast. Marriage to the no-nonsense Ruth (Isla Fisher) could be livelier. The memory of late first wife Elvira lingers, until a seance with medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) renders the haunting literal. Soon Elvira is returned (played by Leslie Mann), a glitzy blonde physically incorporeal but still a thrill in bed.
Internal logic is not the film’s strong point. What is? Put a gun to my head and I might say Joldwynds, the modernist Surrey pile used as main location. Maybe just put a gun to my head. Better that than rewatching the film.
David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of the stage play was a hoot, for all the director was no comedian. But he knew how to showcase Coward’s wordplay and the movie looked terrific, Elvira exuding an absinthe-green Technicolor glow. Hall recycles the set-up as pure missing trousers farce filled with smirky running jokes forced to keep going until they drop sobbing to their knees. Stevens mugs and gurns. The rest of the cast have an air of “I just work here”.
Most misused is Dench. Where Lean set Margaret Rutherford loose as a riotous psychic, her successor is stuck as straight woman, a national treasure wheeled out as if on sale in a tourist gift shop. At one point she appears in a red telephone box on top of what could pass for the white cliffs of Dover. “Full house!” you may cry. Lord knows, you need to make your own entertainment.
On Sky Cinema in the UK from January 15