Saturday Night at the Movies the Canterville Ghost

Oscar Wilde's droll short story "The Canterville Ghost" is as much fairy tale as ghost tale. Producer-writer Robert Benedetti's accessible adaptation emphasizes the romance while playing down the humor. The major changes -- setting it in the 20th century and adding large doses of Shakespeare -- bolster Wilde's message about the power of love.

With:
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Neve Campbell, Joan Sims, Donald Sinden, Cherie Lunghi , Edward Wiley, Leslie Phillips, Daniel Betts, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Raymond Pickard.

Oscar Wilde’s droll short story “The Canterville Ghost” is as much fairy tale as ghost tale. Producer-writer Robert Benedetti’s accessible adaptation emphasizes the romance while playing down the humor. The major changes — setting it in the 20th century and adding large doses of Shakespeare — bolster Wilde’s message about the power of love.

The majority of the movie’s charm, however, lies in the connection between Patrick Stewart (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”), playing an Elizabethan ghost , and Neve Campbell (“Party of Five”), playing a teenager. The pairing brings together substance and sweetness.

On a research sabbatical in England, American physicist Hiram Otis (Edward Wiley) rents Canterville Hall with his wife (Cherie Lunghi), daughter Virginia (Campbell) and two younger boys.

An old servant couple, the Umneys (Donald Sinden and Joan Sims), are part and parcel of the castle, which is commonly known to be haunted.

The opening shots show an old book that contains a prophecy told in verse: A girl’s tears and prayers will someday bring peace to the house. This prediction is also represented pictorially above the library fireplace. The first sign of the paranormal is a bloodstain that has resisted removal since 1584, when Sir Simon de Canterville’s (Stewart) wife was murdered.

That night, Virginia and the boys take the first appearance of the resident specter, Sir Simon, pretty much in stride. When they subsequently announce to their parents that they’ve seen a ghost, Dr. Otis accuses the unhappy Virginia of humoring the boys and stirring up trouble so she can go back to her friends in Indiana. An unrepentant rationalist, he dismisses all talk of ghosts as superstition: “The laws of physics aren’t going to be repealed for the British aristocracy.”

Virginia is intrigued but still miserable, until she meets a dashing young neighbor, the Duke of Cheshire (Daniel Betts). When the boys play tricks on the ghost and he struggles in vain to frighten them, Virginia again takes the blame for the ensuing racket, and her father plans to send her back to the States, separating her from the equally smitten Duke.

Virginia confronts the ghost in his secret chamber, where he’s reciting Shakespeare’s love sonnets. His soul is trapped because he killed his beloved wife in a jealous rage triggered by false information.

The pair’s first interview ends abruptly, but later, realizing she can fulfill the prophecy and set his spirit free, Simon encourages Virginia to follow her feelings for the Duke.

Syd Macartney’s direction doesn’t let anything detract from the story’s idealistic message or its realization in the two lead performances.

Stewart projects quiet aplomb and avoids hamminess, no small feat when all his dialogue is in Elizabethan cadences. Wilde would admire Campbell’s beauty and, though her pouty acting style might strike him as too recessive, it’s completely appropriate to Benedetti’s reworking.

Wilde’s sendup of American and British mores is still evident. The humorous interaction between ghost and mortals, however, is undercut to a degree by intergenerational tension. Subtext hints at something darker than teenage angst between Virginia and her father; the infusion of “Hamlet” contributes to this impression.

The only lapse in the adequately appointed production is the scene in which Virginia is plucked from death’s door, represented by a cleft in the library fireplace. In the absence of a true horror angle, a clumsy visual cliffhanger has been concocted.

Saturday Night at the Movies the Canterville Ghost

(Sat. (27), 9-11 p.m., ABC)

Production: Filmed in England by Anasazi Prods. in association with Signboard Hill Prods. Executive producer, Richard Welsh; co-executive producer, Brent Shields; producer, Robert Benedetti; co-producer, Patrick Stewart; director, Syd Macartney; writer, Benedetti; based on the short story by Oscar Wilde.

Crew: Camera, Denis Lewiston; editors, Paul Martin Smith, Jim Oliver; production designer, Peter Mullins; art director, David Minty; sound, Brian Simmons; music, Ernest Troost.

Cast: Cast: Patrick Stewart, Neve Campbell, Joan Sims, Donald Sinden, Cherie Lunghi , Edward Wiley, Leslie Phillips, Daniel Betts, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Raymond Pickard.

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