Bil’s rating (out of 5): B
United Kingdom, 2020. Fred Films, Powderkeg Pictures, Align, British Lion Films, IPG Media Pty, StudioCanal UK. Screenplay by Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, Piers Ashworth, based on the play by Noel Coward. Cinematography by Ed Wild. Produced by Hilary Bevan Jones, Meg Leonard, Martin Metz, Nick Moorcroft, Toni Pinnolis, Adrian Politowski, Peter Snell, James Spring. Music by Simon Boswell. Production Design by John Paul Kelly. Costume Design by Charlotte Walter. Film Editing by Paul Tothill.
Noel Coward’s delightful play, one of his lighter efforts displaying his “talent to amuse”, hasn’t been on the big screen since David Lean filmed it in 1945 with Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford, which he did with minor augmentations to the script (okay, and a major change to the ending) that never dared hide the fact that you were watching a theatrical piece on a movie screen. A modern version appealing to the endless hunger for tablecloth porn that Downton Abbey has inspired cannot risk boring audiences with limited locations or dialogue-heavy scenes, and so much has been rewritten, invented and altered to make this as exciting an adaptation of Coward as you’ve ever seen (though, okay, they keep Lean’s ending). What these changes do, unfortunately, is take everything delicately small and spontaneous about this very easy play (admittedly not one of my favourites of his) and turn them into something garish and vulgar: the sitting room of a novelist and his wife is now the giant seaside mansion of a screenwriter Charles (Dan Stevens) and his wife Ruth (Isla Fisher), the daughter of a film studio head who is waiting for his son-in-law’s next script. Stevens’ writer’s block is intense but he sees a way out when he attends the performance of famed medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) who suffers a mishap mid-show that reveals her to be a fraud (instead of what was originally a local busybody who amused herself with her crystal ball, we get Dench being humiliated in a giant auditorium). Stevens invites her to join himself and the missus and two of their friends for dinner and a seance and she obliges. Despite the fact that she has never had much success reaching the other side, Arcati manages it on this particular night, scaring up the ghost of Charles’ first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann). Things get raucous when it turns out that only Charles can see or hear this energetic, judgmental spectre, making everyone else think he’s popped his lid, for now he spends his days being chased around the house by the former missus while exasperating the patience of the current. The late Elvira, it turns out, still has a hold on our hero and, even more important, has a thing or two to say about the inspiration for the works that made him popular and can explain why he can’t think of anything new without her around. It’s an insult to Coward’s legacy, and typical of an unimaginative film producer, to assume that his witty repartee volleyed about by elegant and irresistible characters (who, in this case, are played by such glamorous and beloved actors) isn’t enough to keep people in their seats, inventing a bunch of graceless scenes as excuse to visit other settings without contributing to the development of the plot or relationships. Compounding the cheapness of the intellect being exercised in the dramatizing of the play is the flimsy production design, which looks like the cast are in a bad virtual reality experiment under a series of increasingly unreliable wigs. Stevens is dashing in a moustache, at least, and Mann is perfectly aware of what a good time this role provides and doesn’t deny herself any of it, but both of them have been shown off better in other projects and you won’t miss anything by skipping this one.