Producers: James Spring, Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard, Peter Snell, Toni Pinnolis, Adrian Politowski, Martin Metz and Hilary Bevan Jones   Director: Edward Hall   Screenplay: Nick Moorcraft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth   Cast: Dan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Isla Fisher, Judi Dench, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Emilia Fox, Simon Kunz, Adil Ray and Michele Dotrice   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: D

It would be hard to imagine a more dispiriting adaptation of Noël Coward’s 1941 play, which was made into a scintillating film by David Lean four years later, than this cloddish misfire.  An apt comparison would be to Oliver Parker’s dreadful 2002 manhandling of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” even if Coward’s work is hardly the equal of Oscar Wilde’s.

To begin with what’s good here: the visuals are gaudy but impressive, in an extravagant way.  The film is set in 1937 England, and the immaculate grounds, elegant interiors, smashing costumes and elaborate sets are testimony to the effects of the crafts crew—production designer John Paul Kelly, art directors John McHugh and Keith Slote, set decorator Caroline Smith and costume designer Charlotte Walter. Ed Wild’s widescreen cinematography brings out the lusciousness of their work.

A pity it’s wasted on an adaptation of the play that botches everything.  Coward’s basic premise remains intact: writer Charles Condomine contacts medium Madame Arcati for material he intends to use on spiritualists, despite the doubts of his wife Ruth.  Arcati’s séance results in the ghostly return of Charles’ first wife Elvira.  Much trouble ensues, Ruth winds up dead too, and she and Elvira avenge themselves on their egotistical common husband.

Here Charles is not just a mystery novelist, but a would-be screenwriter tasked with adapting one of his books for production by Ruth’s father.  For some reason he’s afflicted with a terrible case of writers block, solved—he thinks—when he and Ruth attend a performance by Madame Arcati which goes badly indeed, when a contraption designed to levitate her breaks and she falls into the theatre’s orchestra pit.  Still Charles arranges for Arcati to give the séance, which returns Elvira to the scene and leads to mayhem.

But while Coward’s play and Lean’s film of it were breezy and witty, this rewritten version is weighed down by drab dialogue and crude slapstick.  Edward Hall’s direction is heavy-handed, and the cast respond with performances that are forced and unfunny.  Dan Stevens is the worst offender as Charles, mugging as though he were trying to mimic Jerry Lewis; the comparison to Rex Harrison, in the Lean film, is invidious indeed.  Both Leslie Mann and Isla Fisher play things much too broadly as Elvira and Ruth as well, but pale beside Stevens.

Then there’s Judi Dench, a superb actress to be sure but miscast as Madame Arcati.  The character has been radically altered to suit her; she’s no longer the exuberant enthusiast so wonderfully played by Margaret Rutherford under Lean, but a tired old has-been huckster still pining over the husband she lost in World War I.  And her effort to find a way to cast Elvira back into the void involves a tired visit to the head of a spiritualist organization and an elaborate ritual that seems like something out of a road company “Macbeth” (or maybe “Hocus Pocus”).  Dench has played some unrewarding characters in the past, but this might be the nadir.

As for the rest of the cast, they are models of affectation, but at least the names of some of them—Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Julian Rhind-Tutt—suggest the snootiness the makers were aiming for but failed utterly to achieve.  The moviemaking subplot leads to some truly unfunny business featuring folks like Cecil M. DeMille, Greta Garbo and Alfred Hitchcock, all of them haplessly mimicked.  Paul Tothill’s editing mistakes frantic for amusing, and Simon Boswell’s score, which comments clumsily on every bit of supposedly jovial business, is intensely aggravating.                   

A single new line of dialogue in the woebegone script effectively summarizes this whole misguided venture.  At an especially uncomfortable moment near the close, Madame Arcati says, “Something has gone hideously wrong.”  Truer words were never spoken.  Luckily, there’s always Lean’s version to return to.