Writers: Cory Edwards, Giles New and Kieron Self (based on the story by Oscar Wilde)
Directors: Kim Burdon and Robert Chandler
A mischievous parody, The Canterville Ghost was the first of Oscar Wilde’s stories to be published. It’s been adapted for the screen several times since its debut in 1887, and this latest, animated version brings a Wildean sensibility with a PG rating.
The story, now set in the early 20th century, has all the requisite parts: a grand country house, Canterville Chase, that’s equipped with a ghost-in-residence. Buying it cheap, the unsuspecting Otis family arrive from the United States, flush with new money, and the ghost makes its presence felt – but even the twins, Louis and Kent, aren’t scared of him. Their sister, 15-year-old Virginia (voiced by The House of the Dragon’s Emily Carey), finds an affinity with the ghost. A prisoner in his own home for 300 years, Sir Simon Canterville (Stephen Fry, putting that audiobook experience to good use) is still mourning the death of his wife, Eleanor. Virginia, not crazy about the move to Britain, challenges Canterville to frighten her family back to America within a fortnight.
The plan does not go as expected. Instead, Virginia finds herself unravelling a mystery. Finding a book on the history of Canterville, she starts piecing together what happened to Eleanor. To release Sir Simon, it seems a prophecy must be fulfilled.
While the film does, largely, stay true to the original text, the satirical quality of Wilde’s story is overlooked. Poking fun at the nouveau riche, as well as getting meta with overblown ghost stories and their well-worn tropes, the story is played straight for much of the time, and the bit of spice that you get with Wilde’s fiction, is notable by its absence. It’s not to say that the film doesn’t love a literary reference: the ubiquitous crow that keeps appearing in the Canterville gardens harks back to Edgar Allan Poe’s bird of chaos and doom; the history book that keeps changing its narrative as Virginia gets closer to the heart of the prophecy, echoes M.R James’ chilling masterpiece, The Mezzotint.
The Canterville Ghost should be a celebration of the ghost story genre, but in making the story kid-friendly, the film is loaded with comedy scenes where the joke is extended for a little too long. Miranda Hart’s voicing of ghost-hunter, Algernean Van Finchley, is pure Blithe Spirit, but the knockabout physical humour deflates the sinister aspect of the character. It’s a criticism that applies to the film as a whole: for a ghost story, it’s not nearly scary enough.
It’s not all bad news: The Canterville Ghost is a decent introduction to the stories of Oscar Wilde, and the look of the film certainly has charm. The starry cast also give good value (no-one does an audio death-drop like Imelda Staunton), but in the desire to make this film as appealing to children as possible, the sharp corners have been rubbed down. The story itself demands a gothic touch, taking those scares right to the edge. Without that element of the macabre, it’s safety first, narrative second.
Signature Entertainment presentsThe Canterville Ghostonly in cinemas 22nd September.