▶︎ Blithe Spirit is released on Sky Cinema from 15 January 2021.

David Lean’s classic 1945 film of Noël Coward’s stage play sticks quite closely to the original. But then, since Coward himself was producing, Lean didn’t really have much choice. (By all accounts, he didn’t greatly enjoy making it.)

Theatre and TV director Edward Hall, here making his big-screen debut, is under no such constraints. His remake plays fast and loose with Coward’s comedy, retaining little of the playwright’s original dialogue. While this frees the drama from the mannered straitjacket of 40s sophisticated comedy, it doesn’t always feel like a good thing.

The basic set-up, though, is retained. A writer, Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens), seeking inspiration, invites an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), to conduct a seance at his house. This inadvertently leads to the reappearance, as a spirit only he can see, of his departed first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann), to the furious resentment of his living second wife, Ruth (Isla Fisher). Cue an ill-starred ménage à trois that plays out in farcically disastrous fashion.

Blithe Spirit (2020)

Chief casualty of the earlier versions is a drastic shift in tone. Where Lean’s film starts with Rex Harrison suavely pouring cocktails, in the remake we’re introduced to Stevens’s Condomine undergoing a full-on meltdown – snarling, screaming, gulping down whisky, hurling his typewriter through his study window to smash the head off a statue in the garden. Later he finds himself strapped to the bed in a mental hospital. And it’s hard to imagine Harrison confiding to a friend, re the state of his marital sex-life, that “it’s like playing billiards with a rope”.

Since Condomine’s working on a screenplay, not a novel, a movie-world element is introduced, allowing for scenes at Pinewood and in Hollywood, and for Hitchcock, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Hedda Hopper to figure in the cast-list. The effect, though, is of a distraction from the main business rather than an enrichment of the action.

Still, Stevens, Mann and Fisher, as the three members of the triangle, play out their scenes with enjoyably committed gusto, and Leslie Mann in particular brings a maliciously calculated flirtatiousness to her portrayal of Elvira. In the chief scene-stealing role of Madame Arcati, Judi Dench never attempts to emulate the lush daffiness of Margaret Rutherford’s classic performance, but instead suggests a deeper, more damaged character lurking behind the showbiz eccentricity.

Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.