Giving everyone “self-pity” as the default setting is a big deal, but more important is how Hall chose to film Elvira as a ghost. In stage productions, of course, the audience can see Elvira. This is where the comedy comes from. The public sees what Charles sees. We know that she is there, we know that Charles isn’t going crazy, but no one else can see her. It’s funny to imagine how crazy Charles must be for everyone who isn’t in the joke. Hall, however, changes his perspective as the scenes progress. Sometimes we see what Charles sees (Elvira is there), sometimes we see what Ruth sees (Elvira is not there). Sometimes CGI effects are used, so that a lipstick floats in the air, degrading a photo, or the piano plays on its own. But this is just a cinema hoax. It kills comedy. “Now you see her now you don’t” just draws more attention to the undeniable fact that you should be laughing, but you don’t.
The framing is disconcertingly inert: there are all these long shots, with people standing talking to each other. Charles and Ruth’s house looks like an Art Deco “Miami Vice” mashup, and none of the interiors are explored for their comedic potential. It all looks like an old-fashioned sit-com, with people walking in and out of rooms, nothing “added”, no comedic tracks, no character, no inventive blocking. A couple of old fashioned falls would have been welcome. Music plays under each scene, adding to the bland generic vibe.
Blissful spirit has been in circulation since its first production in the West End in 1941. A staple of American theater, in both regional repertory theaters and local community theaters, the play is also regularly relaunched on Broadway and the West End. If you’ve seen it live, you know it works. David Lean’s 1945 film adaptation, starring Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford, Constance Cummings and Kay Hammond, is charming, though something gets lost in the translation there, too. (It wasn’t a box office hit.) It may be that Blissful spirit works best for a live audience.
Coward once said:
“Consider the audience. Don’t fear or despise them. Coax them, charm them, interest them, stimulate them, shock them from time to time if need be, make them laugh, do it cry, but above all never, never, never bother. hell alive outside of it. “
This is good advice, advice that this new adaptation has ignored.
Now playing in select theaters and on digital platforms.