Wednesday, July 12, 2017

TV Movie Review - Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey
Based on the book by Jane Austen
Release Date: March 25th, 2007
Starring: Geraldine James, Julia Dearden, Gerry O'Brien, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Desmond Barrit, Felicity Jones, J.J. Feild, Bernadette McKenna, William Beck, Shauna Taylor, Sophie Vavasseur, Carey Mulligan, Hugh O'Conor, Mark Dymond, Catherine Walker, and Liam Cunningham
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Catherine Moreland didn't have the upbringing or character to be a heroine. Despite how many horrid Gothic novels she's read none of her daydreams of masked bandits and vampires was ever going to come true. But just because she wasn't destined to be a heroine didn't mean her life would be without adventure. To that end the Allens, dear family friends, invite her to go to Bath with them. Balls! Gowns! Shopping! Society! And who knows, maybe a dashing stranger would ask her to dance? Henry Tilney is more goofy than dashing, but in one dance he makes a deep impression on Catherine. Her later friendship with Isabella Thorpe and the attentions of Isabella's brother John Thrope can not sway her affections for Henry Tilney. When she is invited by Henry's father under a purposeful misunderstanding to return with them to their home of Northanger Abbey nothing could make Catherine happier than perhaps if Isabella would stop flirting with Henry's older brother while engaged to her own brother James Moreland! Yet Catherine's daydreams of what an Abbey means in Gothic literature might get her into trouble. Yes, there might be dark secrets and vampirism at the Abbey, but not of the kind Mrs. Radcliffe writes about. Could Catherine's imagination get in the way of finding true love? Or is her desire to be a heroine going to pay off with a happily ever after?

In the spring of 2007 I was beyond thrilled at the prospect of ITV's Austen season. New adaptations of Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey? I could not wait! Each one had something to recommend it. Persuasion had Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer playing Sir Walter Elliot, Mansfield Park starred Billie Piper in her first post-Doctor Who role, and Northanger Abbey was adapted by Andrew Davies. Andrew Davies! Who understands what adapting a book is about, spirit versus direct transcription! Though he has said you can basically cut and paste Austen's books from prose to screenplay. I viewed this televisual event as a chance to reacquaint myself with the lesser read of Austen's novels, as I viewed these three at the time. What I found interesting is that my opinion and these three books radically changed on that reading. Though what surprised me the most was how much I adored Northanger Abbey. I had actually never re-read Northanger Abbey after that first read ten years previously because I was too naive to get the parody aspect at the time and therefore ranked it as Austen's worst novel. Older, and hopefully wiser, I thought Austen had never been funnier. And as for Henry Tilney? He instantly became my favorite Austen hero. Why? Because he is a fully rounded character, not some ideal. He has a sense of humor, he loves to read, and well, he's not perfect and somehow that makes him perfect.

When it came to the adaptation of Northanger Abbey my ever increasing love of Henry Tilney wasn't in the least hurt by the masterful portrayal of the role by J.J. Feild. In fact, I'm sure that my reconsideration was in no small part helped by J.J. There's only so much a book can do until you can affix a visual to a character, which is why I often dream cast books as I read them. I couldn't have done better than J.J. for Henry Tilney. Prior to his becoming Henry Tilney he'd made a minor impression on me. As Frederick Garland in the Sally Lockhart mysteries he made the most of a role that PBS almost obliterated with their editing. And when he starred in The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton he'd made enough of a favorable impression that I just couldn't believe he'd give his wife a venereal disease! And I would have totally taken him back with that hangdog expression almost more sheepish than Hugh Grant's patented look. But it was Northanger Abbey that made him forever one of my favorite male actors. The humor? The arch looks? He's perfection. He nails the comedy but he can combine it with pathos and stern censor yet all coming from the heart. He became my heartthrob. I've watched everything he's been in since, yes, even Captain America. I even tried my hardest to like TURN with his little rat tail, but even he couldn't elevate that show. But while I'll always point to Northanger Abbey as the true beginning of my crush, the zenith is Austenland.

Though I do wonder if the little Gothic fantasies of Catherine might supersede the perfection of Austenland. These are not only hilarious, I think they are the key to the dramatization of Northanger Abbey. It's not just that seeing Catherine actually dressed up as the heroine she wishes herself to be pursued by villains is perfection, it's that these overacted vignettes show perfectly her overactive imagination and how she is later able to suspect Henry's father of murder. What's more they perfectly capture the tone Austen was aiming for in her parodying of Gothic literature. Northanger Abbey was written from a place of mocking love, you can see Austen herself has read and devoured these novels from Mrs. Radcliffe and Lewis, how else could she know them so well to then poke fun of them? Yet as I myself proved on my first reading, I was naive to what she was parodying and therefore was unable to understand the brilliance of the book. There dramatization of Catherine's daydreams coupled with excerpts from the actual books referenced by Austen gives the viewer a quick grounding in the genre and then moves onward to parodying that genre. Therefore Davies has made Northanger Abbey able to stand on it's own. Context while nice isn't necessary if this is your first exposure to Austen. If only this adaptation had existed when I first read Northanger Abbey I would have come around to loving it so much soon!

The only thing I really question about this adaptation is did Isabella really have sex with Captain Fredrick Tilney, Henry's older brother, in order to secure an engagement to him? In the edition of Northanger Abbey I recently re-read the introduction was penned by Andrew Davies and he says that Isabella's seduction and therefore her fall from polite society is supported in the text. But is it? In his adaptation of Sense and Sensibility Andrew Davies had Colonel Brandon and Willoughby duel. I of course thought this was creative license along the lines of a certain wet shirt. But if you read Sense and Sensibility knowing that a duel occurs, sure enough, it's not an exaggeration, it is supported by the text. There is a line where Colonel Brandon tells Elinor that he dueled Willoughby when recounting his sad history with Eliza. So knowing that Andrew Davies was right on the duel I was expecting to find him right on the seduction... but I at least didn't see that in the book. Catherine is away from Bath so we as readers are away from the action. So we see Isabella flirting with Captain Tilney and then Catherine gets a letter from Isabella asking for Catherine to help repair the breach with her brother and former fiance James Moreland. While Isabella's desire to return to James might seem out of character I don't think we can infer that she was trying to get back her old beau in a hurry because she was despoiled and possibly pregnant. After all the conditions under which their marriage was to take place figured in a two year engagement. So if I'm missing some key in the text I want to know! Otherwise I think it's all Davies and his desire to add a little more explicit sex to Austen.

But I will allow this license with regard to Isabella because seriously, I hate the whole Thorpe family. A bunch of low class no accounts who weasel their way in and manipulate. What I won't forgive is the clunky narration. At the beginning and the end of the movie Geraldine James has a little voice over. The beginning is actually the first lines of the book and the conclusion is a little of the end of the book and a little artistic license on Andrew Davies part. What I take issue with is that it just doesn't work. It sticks out and makes the whole movie not a cohesive whole. Look to the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma where at the end the narrator was revealed to be Mrs. Elton in a wonderfully fun turn of events and as also a way to incorporate the narrative device into the overall story. Here it just falls flat. Yes, I do agree that there needs to be some framing device but it needed grounding. According to IMDb Geraldine James is actually Jane Austen. Um, I didn't get this at all and I'm pretty sure it didn't say that in the credits. Also, if she was supposed to be Austen, she was 57 when this film was made... more than a tad too old to be Jane. They could have gone the root of Emma and had another character narrating it, but on further reflection wouldn't it have been wonderful for Mrs. Tilney to be the narrator? Looking down on the girl who was going to grow up and make her son happy. In order to get the point across the portrait of Mrs. Tilney could have been of Geraldine James and if you caught it you caught it and if you didn't, no matter. It would have been a cute little nod and a wink and would have made me very happy indeed. 


Newer Post Older Post Home