Our rating: 3 out of 5
Rated: not rated (content equal to PG)
The carriage sprints along a fine golden afternoon toward a looming manor house. As it passes through the arched gates, the sunshine turns to rain and a thunder clap illuminates their arrival. The housekeeper welcomes them inside but warns that there aren't any other servants besides herself and the cook, neither of which who are willing to spend the night in the place. Mr. Otis, the new owner and a practical man, places no stock in local superstition -- that the house is haunted by the ghost of Simon de Canterville (Ian Richardson), who was left to die there after the murder of his wife some three hundred years before. She was pushed down the stairs, meeting a violent end. Her blood still stains the stonework -- despite Otis' best stain-remover. Writing off the stories as local nonsense, the family -- consisting of a Southern belle wife, the romantic-minded Virginia and two pesky twins -- turn in for the night.
This is when the ghost makes his first appearance... and is thoroughly disgusted with the new tenants. They didn't even have the decency to faint. Instead, he was offered oil for his squeaky armor by Mr. Otis, infuriated the wife by refusing a formal introduction, irritated Virginia, and was kicked in the shins by the twins. Everyone in England is notoriously afraid of Simon. This is a mortal blow to his already fragile self-confidence. He vows to make them pay for his humiliation by whatever means possible. In the meantime, the new lady of the house wants him evicted. If it takes a medium, scientist, and mad cleric, so be it. Just get him out, at whatever cost! The nearest neighbor to the house is Lord Cheshire (James D'Arcy) of an old and aristocratic stock. He's thirty-third in line for the throne and a well respected, if somewhat laid-back, Duke of the county. Having come upon Victoria while riding one morning, he rapidly attempts to gain her favor. The young couple find themselves dealing with the irrationalities of love -- and a match badly made.
In order to avoid Virginia's profession that her mother cannot abide wealthy suitors, Cheshire has told her he's as poor as a country church mouse, which in turn makes her convinced he's a fortune hunter. It's a battle of time, wits, and ghostly dealings to repair this broken relationship, find Sir Simon peace at last from the barrage of bothersome people traipsing through the house, and lift the curse which has kept him condemned for three hundred years. For a ghost story, The Canterville Ghost is surprisingly delightful and never treads too deeply in spiritual concerns. There were some things that made me uncomfortable just because I'd been brought up to avoid anything involving the "spirit world" like the plague, but for more mainstream audiences the film will provide many side-splitting adventures... such as the twins rigging a trip wire at the head of the stairs and sending a headless ghost plummeting to the ground floor, to their peals of laughter. It takes poor Sir Simon quite some time to locate his head. Then there's the fun he has with the fake medium Mrs. Otis calls to the house... a woman who goes around swinging little jars of incense and garlic. The scientist who traps the ghost between an electrical current. The cleric who parades around the house throwing his arms up in the air and dramatically remarking on the "intense evil" lingering within... only to be sent packing in a hurry when, suffering from a headache and infernal irritation that he can't be "left alone," Sir Simon appears and gives him a kiss.
The adventures with the ghost, surprisingly enough, almost play second fiddle to Virginia's romance with Lord Cheshire. The scenes between Sarah-Jane Potts and James D'Arcy blend just the right amount of innocence with fascination. The two are utterly charming together as they banter, flirt, and eventually come to a logical conclusion. I loved the scenes at the fair -- when Virginia forgoes propriety and participates in the "Servant's Polka," forcing her hopeful suitor to abandon all his age-long sensibilities and follow. The scene with the mummers dancing in the moonlight, the tree lit up with tiny glass crystals, and the gorgeous countryside. Then there's the creepy old house with its lack of electricity, the morbid dungeons, and the precocious mischief of the twins... not to mention the sweet gardener boy who sends her roses every morning. Even so, the elements I found disturbing should be accounted for.
Firstly there is the medium. For the most part her chants and attempts to "channel" ghosts are fairly low-key and tongue in cheek. She's properly horrified when Sir Simon takes the initiative to speak a few words of self-condemnation through her. Sir Simon appears and disappears in many scenes, terrifying guests and destroying private property. When the cleric's puffed-up attempts to cast him out finally wear on his nerves, he appears in feminine attire, waltzes up the stairs, and plants a kiss on the astonished reverend's lips. The reverend is, of course, portrayed as a complete lunatic. Victoria is abducted and must be rescued from an eerie tomb, where she's found laying beside a skeleton. Through it all, she manages to find empathy for poor Sir Simon and the two carry on occasionally deep, meaningful conversations. There's talk of violence in flashback, although the "murder" of his wife turns out to be much less ill-intended than its portrayed early on.
It's not "evil" but nor is it particularly praiseworthy except for the laughs you'll manage to garner during the process. Wilde's tongue in cheek mockery of... well, just about everything from churchgoers to skeptics to spiritualists to death itself, might offend some viewers despite it being satire. At one point, as the cleric is burning the portrait of Sir Simon, Mr. Otis cries out, "Wait a minute! We're not insured against Acts of God!" In yet another scene, Mrs. Otis reassures her daughter that it's much nicer when one person is very poor and the other is very rich, so they can have a happy marriage. In that same breath comes a surprisingly touching recount of her own relationship with her husband, their meeting, and the true nature of love.