By Maureen Lee Lenker
June 15, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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You've heard of being emotionally unfaithful, but what is it called when the ghost of your first wife shows up to disrupt your marriage to your second?

Angus Young/StudioCanal

That's the conceit behind Blithe Spirit, a new film based on the 1941 Noel Coward play of the same name. Directed by Edward Hall, son of renowned theater director Peter Hall, this new take on the eccentric comedy stars Judi Dench as medium Madame Arcati, Dan Stevens as novelist Charles Condomine, Isla Fisher as his second wife Ruth, and Leslie Mann as his first (and now spectral) spouse Elvira.

StudioCanal

EW has a first look at the new adaptation, featuring exclusive images of the cast in action, including the pivotal seance that brings Elvira back into Charles' life. Hall notes that the scene is one of the most pivotal in the film. "The seance was a scene that I storyboarded really carefully," he says. "It's a question of where you put them, how do you know who's looking at who, who's going be in what shot when you're cutting for reaction?"

As seen in the image above, the sequence begins with an evocative overheard shot. "I wanted to start with an overhead shot with all the hands so you get that classic image of the seance," Hall says, before detailing the nuances of the scene. "It has to be real, but it also has to be ridiculous." Real meets ridiculous is an apt description of the film itself.

StudioCanal

Blithe Spirit has been revived countless times on stage, most recently with Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, and was previously adapted to the screen by legendary director David Lean in 1945, starring Rex Harrison as Charles. But Hall has longed to put a more modern twist on the story for years. It's still set in England during the 1930s, but it gives the women greater agency and depth.

"There was an opportunity now to look at the dynamic between the three of them in a slightly more contemporary way, and add a little bit to Madame Arcati to expand it into a piece of 21st-century filmmaking," Hall says. "There is no way that the female characters in the story wouldn't give as good as they got, so I tried to amplify that side of the story."

That amplification invites a surprising comparison. Stevens likens the darkly comic love triangle with one party visiting from beyond the grave to Death Becomes Her, the 1992 film starring Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Goldie Hawn. "That was very much tonally a touchstone for me," he says. "With two very strong female performances and a slightly pathetic man in the middle, there are a lot of parallels."

Having broken out on Downton Abbey, Stevens is no stranger to period pieces, but he says what drew him to this adaptation was this ability to blend the Coward text of the 1940s with a more contemporary lens. "You don't want to take it too seriously," he says. "There can be a tendency that whenever something is set in the past that we get a bit reverent with it. The idea in some people's minds [is that] history and humor are somehow mutually exclusive, which is weird to me.

StudioCanal

"Once you get into the rhythms of the speech, the comedy is just as madcap and zany as any sort of broad comedy is today," he adds. "That's what was really fun about having actresses like Leslie Mann and Isla Fisher join the fun with their modern comedic instincts. I was keen to try to broaden the tone of it a little bit compared to what people might expect from a lot of onscreen Coward adaptations."

Much of that sensibility arises naturally out of Coward's writing. Though not a household name like Shakespeare, he's a perennial favorite on Broadway and the West End. Both Hall and Stevens point to how resonant Coward's work remains, despite being steeped in the trappings and allure of its era.

"He writes about something everybody has experienced: human, personal relationships," Hall muses. "He's brilliant at getting to the center of what people mean to each other. And he's extraordinarily good at laying bare people's hypocrisy. He just writes with such instinct, and you feel that how he narrates his people is truthful to who they are, not bending things to fit the story he'd like to spin."

Stevens concludes, "Once you get into the tone of it, you can transcend the period, and that's what I thought was so lively about the adaptation that really brought it up to speed, was there's something very zany and and madcap about Blithe Spirit that is just pretty timeless and wild."

Blithe Spirit will be released by IFC Films in the fall.

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