Northanger Abbey is one of Austen's lesser-read novels, which is a shame, because it really is boundless fun. Perhaps, some could claim, this is because from a romantic point of view, there is less popular excitement engendered by its subsequently less famous central love-match, in comparison say to Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, whose intellectual sparring has rendered them almost iconic in Romantic Fiction. Arguably too, Northanger Abbey is treated (perhaps unfairly) as a 'light-weight' compared to Austen's more mature works, such as Emma, Mansfield Park and the touching emotional resonance of 'mature' love between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.
Northanger Abbey can be read as a light-hearted parody of the Gothic Romance literary genre, which was hugely popular in Austen's day, and is lampooned mercilessly and wittily through the muddled adventures of the novel's sweet, naieve young heroine, Catherine Morland's over-attachment to these sensationalist narratives. Catherine's voracious consumption of these overblown adventures, horrors and seductions of her day, leads to unexpected complications and confusions in her own personal life, as fiction merges with reality in her mind, and she almost loses the man she loves, Henry Tilney, as a consequence.
This is foremost a story about a teenager on the cusp of womanhood, and is consequently alive with the foibles and fancies of the young generation of this period. Yet true to Austen there are always serious material concerns pervading the narrative. Marriage prospects, fortune (and lack of it), marital contentment and family dysfunction are key themes. The comedic elements keep this novel from straying too far into the harsh realities of these dark underpinnings; the tone is light and airy. We move through the sometimes seedy world of Bath - full of scoundrels and adventurers - to the austere regime of Northanger Abbey, always in the charming and endearing company of Catherine, who fails to see ill in others, because she herself is so pure-hearted: indeed, this is the quality that the more world-weary and experienced Henry Tilney falls for.
Prior to the new ITV version, there has only been one adaptation of Northanger Abbey - a tele-film aired in 1986 (see Screen Stories review: Firth makes for a 'super-creepy' Austenian hero in Northanger Abbey; the 2nd review), starring Peter Firth as Henry, with a script from Maggie Wadey. This production truly is a horror-show, a failure on every front.
Suffice it to say, ITV's new Northanger Abbey is much, much better - indeed, it is a vast improvement on the dire Mansfield Park (also scripted by Maggie Wadey) we had to suffer last week.
The scriptwriter for this new Northanger Abbey is the hugely capable and experienced 'adaptor laureate' himself, Andrew Davies, and his contribution proves, yet again, that the screenplay in any given TV drama or film is its bedrock, its life-force. With Davies's well-constructed script and surefooted re-casting of Austenian dialogue at its foundations, Northanger Abbey is a production at ease with itself, confident of its pacing, its plotting, its ability to portray credible characterisation.
As one would expect, there are some changes between the source text and adaptation, but in this instance, we never lose a sense of narrative cohesion or find the pace faltering. For example, in the novel, whilst at Northanger Abbey, Catherine visits Henry's parsonage at Woodston, where General Tilney is constantly and pointedly recommending the house as a future marital home. In Davies's screenplay, Woodston is now viewed from afar, whilst Henry and Catherine are riding - it is significant enough that he shows her his home, as by this point the viewer is in no doubt about his feelings for Catherine. Hence it is a convenient edit.
In general, any changes, omissions or deviations are in service here to the plot, ensuring a seamless yet succinct flow. And indeed, Northanger Abbey, of all Austen's novels, does not seem to suffer from being a tele-film, rather than a more drawn-out mini-series, as the plot is never too convoluted - which begs the question why this novel is not a favourite of adaptors.
Davies, of course, has added a fair few of his own distinctive trademark touches too of course, enlivening Catherine's inner life with visual dream-sequences, often of a sexual nature. Catherine's imaginary world is enhanced by her reading works such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, a best-seller of her day, by Ann Radcliffe. But Davies also emphasises The Monk, a Gothic tale of terror, seduction and incest, by Matthew Lewis, which is more strongly sexualised than Radcliffe's more ladylike works.
In this production, Catherine's flighty, flirty friend Isabella Thorpe recommends The Monk to Catherine, recalling the Magic Branch which melts walls presaging erotic experiences, and Catherine is soon seen devouring The Monk by candlelight, gripped by its racy contents. Her dreams become more intense than ever: herself as a Gothic heroine in flight from terrifying forces, and the strongly sexual element of The Monk ensures that there is an erotic charge to her dreams and fantasies. In particular, Catherine is seen to indulge in a fantasy while bathing. The walls, adorned with floral wallpaper, writhe and melt into a sylvan woodland scene where Henry Tilney, notably in full parson's uniform, steps forth, beckoning her from the bath, naked. He admires her naked form, calling her 'God's creation'- but somehow his pious words only serve to highlight the very unholiness of her thoughts.
Of course a nice young girl like Catherine Morland, or even the capricious Isabella Thorpe, would not have been reading The Monk - it was far too saucy. But it is an interesting and fitting addition in this modern adaptation, as it allows Davies to indulge playfully in Catherine's imaginary world, to enliven her erotic awakening, within the spirit of the novel's focus on the perils of the Romantic Gothic genre and its deleterious effects on impressionable young women.
In true Davies' style too, we have an unseen 'romantic' encounter, now brought to life - much as he did with Lydia and Wickham in his 1995 Pride and Prejudice -- as we are allowed to witness Isabella Thorpe, in lonely post-coital discontent in bed, asking Captain Frederick Tilney if they are now engaged. His brusque response is callous, cold. Despite her follies, which are numerous and grating, an iota of sympathy is even elicited here for foolish young Isabella.
A narratorial voice-over is used as a framing-device in this production, swiftly introducing viewers to Catherine from her baptism through to her growing into a rollicking, pretty teenager, ripe for her adventures as a 'heroine'. After all, as the dry, witty voice (in all likelihood supposed to be Austen herself) tells us: 'When a young lady is to be a heroine, something must and will happen to throw adventure in her way.' Catherine is thus launched into the adult world of Bath with her neighbours, Mr and Mrs Allen, as chaperones. The tele-film closes too with this narratorial voice, offering a neat summation of events - Catherine's happy marriage and entrance into motherhood, and the boost in good fortune for Eleanor Tilney and her newly titled and wealthy husband. Normally I dislike a voice-over framing-device, but it works well here.
Aesthetically this production is serviceable if not sparkling. There is something a little muddied and yellow in the cinematography - it lacks pristine sharpness. Certainly these two ITV Austen events have not shared the high quality production values, innovative cinematography and clarity of aesthetic vision enjoyed by recent BBC period dramas such as Bleak House and even Jane Eyre. Perhaps Persuasion will be an improvement on this front next week. Is it a question of budget, of experience and expertise, of the willingness to take risks without compromising the period 'feel' of a production? Similarly, musical scoring in this production is fairly predictable and uninspiring but never actually jarring. In terms of direction too, Jon Jones is competent here, but never exciting. (I felt much the same about his BBC adaptation of Robert Harris's Archangel too).
There has been mild controversy about the locations chosen for this Northanger Abbey. Although much of the action takes place in fashionable Bath, here it is Dublin, with its Georgian architecture, which acts as a stand-in - reportedly because Ireland was a cheaper shooting location. Does Northanger Abbey need Bath to truly bring it to life? Probably not, but it might have been nice. The production notably steers clear of tell-tale wide-lens establishment shots, for those who might recognise the many references to real world locations in the script (and obviously to a greater extent in the novel itself).
As for General Tilney's Northanger Abbey itself, this is not an abbey but a hulking Gothic castle (Dublin Castle no less) complete with Disneyland turrets. It's all a little overblown. And of course, the tele-film - as the novel - indulges in its moments of pathetic phallacy. Timely thunder-storms, flashes of lightening, rain storms all contribute to the brooding, threatening atmosphere of Northanger Abbey. It's all delightfully silly. More fitting are the gentle, sunny scenes at Fullerton, the Morland home, with an ivy-clad parsonage (of very grand proportions it must be said) while Henry's parsonage is a fine, grey-stone house, with a thoroughly respectable air of modest solidity.
Acting performances throughout are steady, if not scintillating. Felicity Jones, who plays Catherine Morland, will be a big star I'm certain. Not because of her immense acting talents, although she is fine in this department, but because she is something of a ‘hottie’ in a sort of nubile, Leslie Carron-as-Gigi kind of way with large, soulful eyes and bee-sting lips pouting prettily in the manner of a perpetually surprised bunny rabbit. At first I felt she was a little too knowing to be a naieve young heroine, unexperienced in the wicked ways of the world. But here, a little strangely, she seems to become increasingly artless and insecure as the action progresses, to the point where our sympathies are truly engaged with her by the time she is evicted cruelly from Northanger Abbey. She firmly believes she is being punished for her own silly fancies, and even deserves such harsh treatment. She never suspects the awful truth, that General Tilney learns she is not a wealthy heiress (as he had been falsely told by Thorpe) and therefore sees her as a fortune-hunting adventuress. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
As for Henry Tilney, the man Catherine loves and eventually marries. He is played here by JJ Feild with charm, wit and warm tenderness towards young Catherine, whose innocence he cherishes. I actually like JJ Feild's Henry Tilney more than Austen's - although I do like Austen's hero a great deal too.
In truth I have mixed feelings towards Henry Tilney as a Romantic hero. On the one hand he is witty, urbane, the kind of guy who could be tremendous fun. You could imagine a modern-day Henry as great company, engaging in sexy, stimulating banter, laced with a healthy dose of bitchiness. To my mind, he would make a great match for a 'mature' and witty woman. But in Northanger Abbey he has been paired with an adorable, innocent child-woman, who I occasionally feel has strayed into the wrong love story. For me, the whole affair has a slight whiff of ‘cradle-snatching’ – which doesn’t reflect particularly well on our dear Henry. I fear poor Catherine will become hectored and lectured into sullen silence, rather than mentored into maturity, which is what Austen would rather have us believe here I feel. This does not feel like a union of equals, and in a postfeminist age, equality of mind is surely a pre-requisite for ideal love. (Again, is this why Pride and Prejudice is so popular?)
I can't help but slightly resent Henry's paternalistic upbraiding of Catherine for her (granted) very foolish notions about his father's murdering his mother. He is justified, of course. But it is the momentuous importance given to the incident in the heroine's life which riles me a little. For Catherine, Henry's anger is a turning point when she sees that the realities of experience - as explained to her by Henry earlier - are more frightening and more serious than any novel, and not to be treated as trifles. It is the crux of her maturation plot - much as poor Emma Woodhouse is later reduced to tears by her moral mentor Mr Knightley, after her rudeness to Miss Bates on Box Hill. In both cases the romantic hero is accorded a hugely vital role in shaping the heroine's character (and suitability for marriage). But there is something a little patronising and self-satisfied in these examples of male moral superiority, reining in the feminine excesses of the women they hope to wed. I guess then my quibble here is actually less with Henry Tilney (or even Mr Knightley), but with Austen's deployment of these characters as subtle Pygmalions.
JJ Feild's Henry is always saved by an impish, boyish charm. He is perceptive, intelligent, and of course, as Mrs Allen (Sylvestra Le Touzel in her best ever performance) constantly tells us, he 'understands muslins.' Certainly he has a 'feminine' side, but JJ Feild's Tilney is tough too, judging by his instant dismissal of two young men from their seats at the Assembly dance, to enable Catherine and Mrs Allen to sit down. There is also something very self-aware throughout his performance, perhaps something hurt and vulnerable too. He envies Catherine's happy childhood, her resultant purity of thought and motive. There is a lonely little boy behind his glib, witty persona, although we have sadly lost some of his sparkling wit and cleverness in the transition from text to screen. But not so much as to lose the 'essence' of Henry Tilney, which JJ Feild has captured strongly here.
Here, Henry and Catherine's romance is sweet, endearing. He describes the bovine, pushy John Thorpe, (William Beck), who is chasing Catherine's affections with brazen gusto, as his 'rival' and warns Catherine he is not best-equipped to offer his opinion on Thorpe, thus ensuring his admiration for her is always clear cut. Indeed, their mutual appreciation is always obvious, which made me wonder why he did not propose to her at Northanger Abbey, most especially considering his father is so keen to forge a match between them (whilst he still believes her to be filthy rich). Certainly there is also some sexual attraction between Catherine and Henry, particularly displayed when he wipes her cheek clean after riding. And once he has ditched his irksome father and finally proposed to Catherine at Fullerton, the couple's obligatory kiss (for the satisfaction of a modern TV audience) is definitely ardent, almost raunchy, compared to most period dramas. Perhaps it is the corollary of sweet little Catherine's pent-up fantasy world finally bubbling to the fore, as she literally pushes Henry backwards into a hedge with the force of her passion. It is little surprise that our next shot of the happy couple is post-marriage, of course, and holding a baby ...
Aside from the central couple, there are some strong supporting performances. Carey Mulligan is very good as the flirtatious Isabella. She not only flirts with all the men in Bath, but even, it seems, with the male viewers, as at one point, she is alone with Catherine, both in their under-garments, cleavages busting out of their corsets and long hair wild, undone. 'What would men think if they saw us now?' she giggles knowingly. (Another Davies 'touch'). Mulligan captures beautifully Isabella's shallow, vapid nature, her reliance on her sexuality above all - although we cannot forget this is a girl without fortune, possibly raised to silliness, as perhaps shown by her mother's downcast face, accompanying her daughter's arch, brittle manner, when news comes that James Morland (Catherine's brother) is not the wealthy marriage prospect the Thorpes had hoped for. And yet Isabella is a victim too, as shown by Captain Tilney's caddish 'use' of her. Eleanor Tilney, (Catherine Walker), assures Catherine, in her slow, sage manner, that Isabella is the type to recover from such disappointments - but one wonders about the real vulnerability of Isabella's situation, most particularly as she does not have the wit and intelligence to truly play the game, and survive intact.
Out of the remaining minor characters, the Allens (Desmond Barrit and Sylvestra Le Touzel) make for a fine comedic pairing, and the Morland family are pleasantly characterised. Mark Dymond makes for a suitably sly Captain Frederick Tilney, and his father, the sinister General, is played, a little less successfully perhaps, with sombre froideur by Liam Cunningham.
Overall this was an enjoyable piece, far superior to ITV's Jane Austen Season opener Mansfield Park. This is not a vintage Austen adaptation, in being a little stale aesthetically and slightly unimaginative in terms of direction. Locations, musical scoring, costumes are serviceable, if not astounding. Acting is pretty strong throughout, while never super standout, aided by a fluent, flowing and neatly plotted script. But the tele-film has a quiet, winning charm, and of course, it is hugely refreshing to see a new version of Austen's delightful, yet least-read and least-adapted work.