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; 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. 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.
Virginia is intrigued but still miserable, until she meets a dashing young neighbor, the Duke of Cheshire (Daniel Betts). When she confronts the ghost in his secret chamber, he’s reciting Shakespeare’s love sonnets. 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.