Blithe Spirit (12A)
Verdict: Shallow but fun
Ham On Rye
Verdict: Weird coming-of-age satire
When Noel Coward, whose play Blithe Spirit had been a smash hit in the West End, saw David Lean’s film version in 1945, he crushed Lean by saying — and I paraphrase only slightly — ‘You’ve just mucked up the best thing I ever wrote.’
Blithe Spirit is about spiritualism, about raising the dead, and I fear that were Coward’s own ghost to see Edward Hall’s remake, his silk cravat might levitate from his neck and tighten around Hall’s.
It is a jolly film and the Art Deco backdrops are truly ravishing, but it is played as broad knockabout comedy in a way that obliterates the cleverness of the original concept.
Blithe Spirit is about spiritualism, about raising the dead, and I fear that were Coward’s own ghost to see Edward Hall’s remake, his silk cravat might levitate from his neck and tighten around Hall’s
The charge against Lean, whose film starring Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford was subtle by comparison, was that he was a wholly serious man of cinema, lacking the deft comic touch required to do proper justice to Coward’s play.
Hall, by contrast, is a theatre director of considerable pedigree but he doesn’t quite work it out, either. On stage, Blithe Spirit is a farce — but a smart one.
Here, it more often feels like Rentaghost, the children’s TV series of blessed memory, for grown-ups.
Nevertheless, it couldn’t look more sumptuous and it stars Dame Judi Dench in the old Rutherford role as nutty medium Madame Arcati, so there are at least two sound reasons for seeing it.
Moreover, Dan Stevens, while no Rex Harrison, has successfully exorcised the flickering spirit of Downton Abbey’s dull old Matthew Crawley to become an adroit light comedian.
Now Hugh Grant has moved on to play murderous fiends, there’s a vacancy for a devilishly handsome, frightfully English matinee-idol type with sharp comic timing. Stevens might well be the anointed one.
Here he plays Charles Condomine, a novelist whose desperate dose of writer’s block has — nudge, nudge — also stopped him producing exclamation marks in the bedroom. Both his career and his five-year marriage to Ruth (Isla Fisher) are in a slump.
When he invites famous spiritualist Madame Arcati to preside over a séance at his home, he is looking only for literary inspiration.
Moreover, Dan Stevens, while no Rex Harrison, has successfully exorcised the flickering spirit of Downton Abbey’s dull old Matthew Crawley to become an adroit light comedian
Instead, she accidentally raises the ghost of his dead wife Elvira (Leslie Mann), who, jealous of his relationship with Ruth, begins to cause all sorts of mischief, not least by reminding Charles how much fun she was, and how sexy, before her untimely demise (breaking her neck, while riding in a point-to-point).
Wisely, Hall and his screen- writers have retained the story’s period setting, enabling the designers to have an Art Deco field day.
Less wisely, they do too much recycling of the one-note gag that only Charles can see Elvira, so when he talks to her he appears to be addressing someone else, leading to repeated misunderstandings.
Also, Fisher is miscast. Ruth is at least as pretty (and almost as flighty) as Elvira, which isn’t the idea at all.
But if you accept this version of Blithe Spirit as a shallow, rather hammy romp, then it will reward the investment of time, which after all is one commodity many of us currently have in abundance.
On which note, while Lean’s film three-quarters of a century ago was well received, on the whole, Coward wasn’t the only person who disliked it.
Others felt it was disrespectful to treat death with levity at a time of war. Maybe the same applies while a pandemic rages, but it could be just the sort of undemanding escapism you’re looking for.
There is nothing undemanding about Ham On Rye, which as it happens offers decidedly less ham than Blithe Spirit.
Also, Fisher is miscast. Ruth is at least as pretty (and almost as flighty) as Elvira, which isn’t the idea at all
On the contrary, writer-director Tyler Taormina’s debut feature requires an awful lot of patient commitment on its audience’s part.
That said, Taormina gives a bold and ingenious twist to a cinematic staple: the U.S. coming-of-age movie.
You can think back to Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused (1993), or to George Lucas’s American Graffiti 20 years earlier, and imagine them in the hands of David Lynch or even Stanley Kubrick.
Alternatively, you can watch Ham On Rye for yourself and either fully embrace its faintly surreal air of menace or quickly recognise that it’s going nowhere, even at a concise 85 minutes.
It takes place on the night of a dance at a diner called Monty’s, a kind of prom marking the last day of high school, for which the unnamed town’s teenagers dress up and pair off in a ritual as rigid as in any Jane Austen adaptation. Insofar as the story has a centrepiece, that’s it . . . insofar as there’s any story at all.
Otherwise, the camera just flits from group to group, parodying more conventional coming-of-age movies and having a contemptuous cackle, too, at the clichés of middle-class American suburbia. It’s extremely strange but also strangely compelling.
Blithe Spirit is available on Sky Cinema from today. Ham On Rye is on the streaming platform Mubi.
How the FBI tried to kill King’s dream
Verdict: A fine documentary
Verdict: Handsome but turgid
This fascinating documentary, releasing in the last full week of Donald Trump’s presidency, could hardly be more timely.
Martin Luther King’s 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech to the adoring multitudes in Washington DC remains as revered in the history books as Trump’s 2021 version will, it seems, be reviled.
But two days after King’s address, an internal FBI memo called him ‘the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation’.
J. Edgar Hoover, whose tenure as head of the FBI lasted, astonishingly, from 1924 to 1972, resolved to do all he could to undermine America’s best-known civil-rights leader.
At first that meant trying to tarnish him as a communist sympathiser, but when wiretaps and hotel bugs revealed that King was unfaithful to his wife Coretta, the focus shifted to portraying him as a ‘moral degenerate’.
The story of the FBI’s campaign to discredit King has been told before on screen, and a fair amount of this material will be familiar to anyone interested in U.S. politics of that period.
This fascinating documentary, releasing in the last full week of Donald Trump’s presidency, could hardly be more timely
But enough of it is new, lifted from freshly declassified files, to make Sam Pollard’s film well worth watching.
It also features an interview with James Comey, the former FBI chief, dismissed by Trump in 2017.
Comey declares himself ‘sick to my stomach’ over revelations from ‘the darkest part of the bureau’s history’, which include details of a letter sent to King, clearly from someone at the FBI purporting to be a well-wisher, in which he was invited to ‘do the right thing’.
The letter arrived with a tape recording of King allegedly having sex with other women. ‘The right thing’ to do, it was implied, was to kill himself — although soon enough an assassin’s bullet did the job anyway.
From the past to the future, Archive is a good-looking but rather turgid sci-fi thriller, a first-time feature from British writer-director Gavin Rothery.
Theo James stars as a lonely American scientist in a remote Japanese base who is trying to bring his dead wife (Stacy Martin) back to life in robot form.
Alex Garland’s 2014 film Ex Machina covered strikingly similar territory much more grippingly.
MLK/FBI is available on digital download now, Archive from Monday.