From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
“If adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.”
The new ITV/Masterpiece PBS adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey aired on PBS last night. After viewing a pensive Persuasion adaptation last week during The Complete Jane Austen, I was all fired up to be shaken out of my Jane Austen adaptation stupor with a new production of Northanger Abbey. This is a lively story of youth, inexperience, and first love played against campy Gothic fiction. How could I not be revived?
So let me begin by telling you that two filmatic productions were never at such opposite ends of the Jane Austen gene pool emotionally and spiritually. What a relief to play with Catherine Morland and the other youngsters in the shallows.
Catherine Morland, the daughter of a rural clergyman, is taken to Bath for the season by family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Allen. Here, she makes the acquaintance of the Thorpe family, including Isabella, who becomes engaged to Catherine’s brother James, and her brother John, who declares his romantic interest in Catherine. However, Catherine’s head is turned by Henry Tilney (son of the intimidating Gen. Tilney), and she has the good fortune to gain the general’s approval. But, his approval is founded upon the exaggerated report of her family’s wealth, delivered by the foolish, young John Thorpe.
Immediately, I was impressed with the superior production quality of this adaptation. To hear the opening lines of the novel in a voice-over by actress Geraldine James as the narrator was more than encouraging, it was a downright epiphany. The costumes, scenery, and locations looked authentic. The music is period sans saxophones. The actors all look presentable. This was more than a bright beginning.
And then the actors spoke and the words were not Austen’s. My momentary fantasy was fractured. I was abruptly reminded that this WAS an adaptation by period drama icon Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice 1995), capable of unearthing all sorts of sexual treasures from mere words or implied meaning. Ack! I must set down my notions of our authoress reigning supreme. Only on the page, I tell myself. Only on the page. Sigh.
Still open, optimistic and engaged, I continue beyond my first reaction and was drawn into the story, which I know well and love. Our young impressionable heroine Catherine Maroland is quite believably portrayed by fresh-faced Felicity Jones. She is in fact so convincing as Catherine that in comparison to all the actresses cast to portray a Jane Austen heroine, I can find no fault and only offer praise for her performance. For such a young actress, she can swim with the big fish.
Approval of the casting of the heroine is a big step toward enjoying any film adaptation, but to also accept the choice of hero is an even greater delight. In the character of Henry Tilney actor JJ Feild has very big boots to fill, and I shudder at the thought of miscasting. Henry is quite possibly Jane Austen’s most admired and esteem-able male hero; charming, quirky, witty and wise. A man among Austen men.
Happily, Mr. Feild had me at his first smile. I felt like a school girl again, giddy and light-headed. He was everything that I could have hoped for in Henry Tilney. Mr. Darcy beware. You have serious competition in the swoon arena.
I was also surprised by another great choice of casting in Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe, that hip, flip, mentor of Catherine. Austen gave us a challenge in her character in that her unique personality, a dangerous combination of clever flirt and devil-may-care whimsy, can easily be misinterpreted. Isabella expresses her wild opinions so smoothly, that one really never knows if she is telling the truth or not. Carey Mulligan navigates beyond the shallowness of Isabella and convinces us that she is a sincere but misguided young woman, clever beyond her own abilities, and a fetching minx in a muslin frock. We cringe at her enthusiastic ill advice and imprudent actions but are softened by a memory of a friend, sister, or ourselves from an earlier day. Of all the recent crop of British actresses, I expect fine things for the career of Miss Mulligan. She reminds me of a young Dame Wendy Hiller who was cast in a favorite movie, I Know Where I’m Going. If given half a chance, Miss Mulligan could take Hollywood by storm.
Now, on to the odd bits. Advice to producers of the Austen oeuvre. Don’t let your actors resemble famous historical figures. Reverend Morland looks far too much like American patriot Benjamin Franklin. It breaks the illusion. Take care with the declotte on the bodices of your ladies’ gowns. A deep breath or a sharp twist can cause express concern from your audience. Always be authentic and film in Bath if the story calls for it. We know the difference. Plan for a minimum of two hours in length, four is better. Ninety minutes is a shockingly brief Spark Notes introduction to Austen’s intentions. Her words are there for a reason. Please spare us any further dalliances with Andrew Davies’ fantasies about underlying sex oozing in Austen novels. It is there, but need it be overemphasized?
All in all, this new ITV/Masterpiece Classic adaptation of Northanger Abbey was a delight. I will watch it again without hesitation.
5 out of 5 Stars
- Northanger Abbey (2007)
- Studios: ITV & PBS
- Director: Jon Jones
- Screenplay: Andrew Davies, based on the novel by Jane Austen
- Cast: JJ Feild, Felicity Jones, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Carey Mulligan, Liam Cunningham
- Length: 1 hour 28 minutes
We viewed this movie on Amazon video with our subscription to PBS. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Images courtesy of ITV & PBS © 2007; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2022, austenprose.com.
Overall, I enjoyed this adaptation (well, after last week’s disaster almost anything would look good!). I do wish, however, that someone would put an end to the Austen-on–Speed trend. What’s the rush? And, sigh, I lamented the loss of so much of our dear Henry’s wonderful dialogue. Loved Felicity Jones as Catherine!
I enjoyed this movie but it has been years since I read “Northanger Abbey” so it was not like seeing an adaptation of “Persuasion” or “Sense and Sensibility” where I know so many words by heart. I loved the actors – especially Felicity Jones. My big complaint is that Masterpiece cut at least ten minutes from the original ITV version of the movie that you can watch on youtube. Why?
Great review! I too was disappointed with Andrew Davis’ own writing disguised as Austen’s, and certain scenes superficially dealt with. But then again, it’s NA in a 90 min. nutshell, and viewers in my city or area were robbed of the first 15 minutes of the film even! But thanks Laurel Ann for the lively write-up!
Another comment? Was anyone else bothered by John Thorpe’s character? He was very creepy and would it have been socially acceptable to swear in front of women? Would Mr. Morland have thrown such a man in his sister’s way?
Hi Leah, I did cringe when John Thorpe swore. I can only surmise that since his character was condensed so tightly, that this was Davies way of character development? Hard to know, but it didn’t work for me. In the novel John Thorpe and James Morland seem to be good friends. It makes one wonder if all of the Morland family were so very trusting and open sorts? Cheers, Laurel Ann
I have been rereading NA for the first time in years and John Thorpe does swear in the book. Lots of “D.____”s but I would have never guessed what the “D” stood for since I’m not used to people talking like that today! I was thrown by the description of the movie/book leading up to Sunday where John Thorpe was described as a love interest of Catherine’s. As I read the book it is very clear that Catherine did not even like John Thorpe and found him tiresome. So, did James Morland love Isabella so much that he would throw John Thorpe at his sister? Strange.
Leah: I think James Morland may well be naive enough to think well of the Thorpe’s, or at least not doubt their intentions. I agree with you that in the book, Catherine did not like JT a bit but just remained polite because of her brother. I think this time Andrew Davis has strayed a bit too much in re-shaping his version of NA, unlike his faithful interpretation of P & P in 1995.
I was pleased to watch the adaptation, but also agree that it was Andrew Davies fantasy of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. So I brought down “Complete Works of Jane Austen” and read again one of my favorite works of Austen. I do think that Felicity Jones has risen the bar for other actresses to portray Catherine Morland as well as very well cast JJ Feilds and Carey Mulligan.
I am a huge fan of Carey Mulligan.
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Northanger Abbey is mentioned on my site. Please visit.
This is the third adaptation of an Austen novel I’ve seen. The first was Kiera Knightley’s “Pride & Prejudice”; the second was Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny Price in “Mansfield Park” (excellent, by the way); and this one is the third adaptation I’ve seen.
I have only read one Austen novel – Pride & Prejudice. Have I ruined my enjoyment of “Mansfield Park” and “Northanger Abbey” forever by seeing the movie versions first? (And two very different movie versions, at that.)
Hi Matthew, thanks for visiting. Having seen the movie adaptations first will not ruin your reading experience. It will just be different – so expect more detail and sometimes a different point of view from Austen.
Many have seen the movies first. It seems to be the way that our exposure to Austen begins, unless you have a friend, teacher or family member who encouraged you to read a novel first. We are a very visual society, so don’t let your first experience curtail the enjoyment of reading.
Cheers, Laurel Ann
I love this adaptation.
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My only disappointment was and still is, that it is too short.
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Me too. In retrospect after 12 years since it aired, many of the cast members have gone on to be in amazing projects and now big stars. That for visiting. LA
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