February 20, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Contrary to what one might assume, bringing entertaining, silly slapstick comedy to the screen is actually quite difficult. This is director Edward Hall’s first feature film, as his career has been mostly in TV series work and on stage. That stage work is likely what attracted him to this long-time favorite from Noel Coward. Adding to the difficulty is that Coward’s work was previously brought to the screen by legendary director David Lean in 1945, in a project that featured Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, and Margaret Rutherford. Lean’s film won an Oscar for Special Effects.

Director Hall is working with a script adapted from Coward’s play by Piers Ashworth, Meg Leonard, and Nick Moorcroft. Rather than embrace the witty dialogue of a sophisticated upper class screwball comedy, this one seems committed to a level of silliness that intentionally overshadows the supernatural story line. It’s 1937 England where we first meet crime novelist Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) in an angry, whisky-laced state of writer’s block. He’s trying to adapt his own novel into his first screenplay, and the pressure is mounting since the movie’s Producer is also his father-in-law. Charles’ second wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) enjoys her life of luxury and can’t understand why her successful husband can’t do it (in more ways than one).

Date night at the theatre inspires Charles to invite the spiritualist medium Madame Arcati (Judi Dench) to their house to conduct a séance. This despite Madame Arcati being exposed as a fraud. He’s simply desperate to break his writer’s block. The story takes a turn when the séance conjures Charles’ first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann). However, he’s the only one who can see her, and neither Elvira nor Ruth are pleased with the presence of the other. On the bright side, Elvira assists Charles with his writing – it turns out she was long his muse (and maybe more).

Leslie Mann and Isla Fisher are two of the most talented comic actresses working today, but even they can’t save this nonsensical barrage of motion. Judi Dench is an Oscar winner, and at 86 years old, she still excels at working a scene. On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Stevens has neither the charm nor the comedic chops to pull off the Charles character as written. And it does seem the script, and the approach to the material, is what turns this into a vacuous affair, seemingly devoid of any cleverness save what the trio of talented actresses deliver. There are plenty of movies that deal with life after death in various ways, but whether serious or farcical, the best are entertaining. Unfortunately, this one has little to offer, and actually turns from not very funny to downright mean by the end.

Opening in theaters and VOD on February 19, 2021




July 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Magnolia Theatre in Dallas included this one in its Summer Classic series and it drew a decent sized audience, even though the one-night-only showing was on the same evening as many of the local fireworks shows for Independence Day. If you are unfamiliar with this film, you should know that it garnered director David Lean his first of seven Oscar nominations. In contrast to this “little” film, Lean went on to direct such epics as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago.

Marital infidelity has long been a favorite topic in Hollywood … umm … I mean on screen. Rarely is it treated with such respect as it is here. The story is based on a short play from the great Noel Coward. With numerous scenes added for the film version, it never feels forced or over-written. What really makes this one standout is that the two lead characters are basically happily married people who just stumble into each other and a bond forms … despite their level-headed acknowledgments that it’s not a good idea.

 Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) are just going about their daily routines when circumstances bring them together at the hectic train station. We learn this in the opening scene (pictured left) through the internal-dialogue (narration) coming from Laura. See, the bulk of the movie is a flashback as we are really starting at the end. This opening scene is brilliant as we can all relate to the frustration Laura feels as her yappy, but well-meaning friend, unwittingly crashes the going-away party. We see the torture on the faces of Laura and Alec, but it takes the rest of the movie for us to get the full story.

 The setting of a train station adds a time-sensitive element to the rushed time together. While they bond through tea, food and movies, the train whistle is the reminder that the precious moments are at the mercy of a schedule that won’t allow for flexibility. This is no Meet-Cute of which films today seem to think is a required element. No, these are two real adults who have not before noticed an element missing in their lives. Perhaps Coward is saying that nothing must be missing for two kindred spirits to connect, but that the real choice continues to lie within each of us … loyalty, fidelity and judgment are on constant alert.

 It should be noted that Celia Johnson’s performance really carries the film. She was nominated for an Oscar and is just brilliant in her emotional roller coaster ride. Trevor Howard, a strong character actor, makes a terrific partner for her. They strike us as real people, not movie stars, caught in a real life dilemma. To prevent an over-wrought emotional wringing, we get the comedic balance of conductor Stanley Holloway and his flirtatious ways with prim and proper shopkeeper Joyce Carey. Their playful (yet similar) relationship counteracts the upper-crust complexity of Laura and Alec.

The film and its players offer up a few interesting side notes. Celia Johnson was not a fan of acting. She was seduced into playing the role after her friend Noel Coward personally read the script to her. Celia was married to Peter Fleming, older brother of Ian Fleming – he of James Bond fame. Noel Coward had a multi-faceted career that included playwright, actor, songwriter and singer, novelist and even director. Mr. Coward personally selected the Rachmaninoff piano concerto that so wonderfully accompanies the movie’s happenings. The bookstore shown in the film was later spun off from Boots Pharmacy, which only this year was purchased by Walgreens. Lastly, the film was originally banned in Ireland for showing marital infidelity in such a positive light. Though released in 1945, it wasn’t shown in the United States until 1946, thereby pushing the Oscar nominations to 1947.

** Note: don’t mistake the 1974 TV version featuring Richard Burton and Sophia Loren for this far superior David Lean version

watch the trailer: