Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (2007) – A Movie Review

 Northanger Abbey 2007 cast

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.

DESCRIPTION:

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.

MY REVIEW:

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 is quite believably portrayed by fresh-faced Felicity Jones. She is in fact so convincing as Catherine Morland, 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.

JJ Feild as Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey 2007

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 J.J. 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.

Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland and Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey 2007

 

I was also surprised by another great choice of casting in Carey Mulligan as that hip, flip, mentor of Catherine, Isabella Thorpe. 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.

Northanger Abbey: Our Hero Henry Tilney

 

JJ Feild as Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey 2007

“His name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance.”

In anticipation of the premiere on Sunday of the new adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey presented by Masterpiece PBS, I thought it helpful to introduce the hero Henry Tinley, and highlight some of his most insightful quotes and humorous passages from the novel.

I believe that Jane Austen has created her most charming, quirky, clever, and well-spoken male character of any of her heroes in Henry Tilney. In one of her few physical descriptions of her characters of any length, we are given more than a brief introduction.

The master of the ceremonies introduced to her (Catherine Morland) a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; his name was Tilney. He seemed to be about four or five and twenty, was rather tall, had a pleasing countenance, a very intelligent and lively eye, and, if not quite handsome, was very near it. His address was good, and Catherine felt herself in high luck. Chapter 3

If by some happy chance, you are reading the novel or viewing the adaptation for the first time, you have quite a treat in store for yourself. Henry is the unique voice of reason and witty humor throughout the novel. When he speaks, it is usually in conversation with our heroine Catherine Morland, and he is all about winning her respect with bright and insightful little nuggets on life philosophy or personal opinion on a variety of topics! In fact, his decided views of love, marriage, dancing, history, politics, and human nature make him quite possibly Jane Austen’s strongest male character, not only because we have no doubt of his mind, but the fact that he has absolutely no trouble expressing it.

Image of cover of Northanger Abbey DVD, BBC (1986)If you have previously read the novel, or seen the 1986 BBC adaptation starring Katharine Schlesinger as Catherine Morland and Peter Firth as Henry Tilney, you are well aware of his esteemable nature and are quite possibly already a fan. He is hands down my favorite Jane Austen hero. Why? Many of Jane Austen’s heroes have fine qualities, but in my estimation, none reach the level of Henry. For who could not fall in love with a man of such “pleasing countenance” and “lively eye”; – – who dances quite well, is passionate about expressing himself with alacrity, certitude, and acumen, and happily rescues our heroine? Who indeed?

Henry Tilney on the fair sex, marriage, and dancing:

“I should no more lay it down as a general rule that women write better letters than men, than that they sing better duets, or draw better landscapes. In every power, of which taste is the foundation, excellence is pretty fairly divided between the sexes.” Ch 3

“I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not choose to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.” Ch 10

“Come, shall I make you understand each other, or leave you to puzzle out an explanation as you can? No – I will be noble. I will prove myself a man, no less by the generosity of my soul than the clearness of my head. I have no patience with such of my sex as disdain to let themselves sometimes down to the comprehension of yours.” Ch 14

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much that they never find it necessary to use more than half.” Ch 14

“No man is offended by another man’s admiration of the woman he loves; it is the woman only who can make it a torment.” Ch 19

“At any rate, however, I am pleased that you have learnt to love a hyacinth. The mere habit of learning to love is the thing; and a teachableness of disposition in a young lady is a great blessing.” Ch 22

“The world, I believe, never saw a better woman. But it is not often that virtue can boast an interest such as this.” Ch 24

Henry Tilney on life’s pleasures, convictions, horrors, and principles:

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.” Ch 14

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” Ch 14

“It is as much as should be said of anyone. To be always firm must be to be often obstinate. When properly to relax is the trial of judgment;” Ch 16

“And are you prepared to encounter all the horrors that a building such as ‘what one reads about’ may produce? Have you a stout heart-nerves fit for sliding panels and tapestry?” Ch 20

“If I understand you rightly, you have formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to-Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from?”  Ch 24

“You feel, as you always do, what is most to the credit of human nature. Such feelings ought to be investigated, that they may know themselves.” Ch 25

“I am come, young ladies, in a very moralizing strain, to observe that our pleasures in this world are always to be paid for, and that we often purchase them at a great disadvantage, giving ready-monied actual happiness for a draft on the future, that may not be honoured.” Ch 26

“But your mind is warped by an innate principle of general integrity, and therefore not accessible to the cool reasonings of family partiality, or a desire of revenge”. Ch 27

Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland and Carey Mulligan as Isabella Thorpe in Northanger Abbey (2007)

Mark your calendars and set your watches for the premiere of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, presented by Masterpiece PBS, Sunday, January 20th at 9:00 pm. Starring Felicity Jones as Gothic novel influenced Catherine Morland, and J.J. Feild as her hero, and ours, Henry Tilney. Watch out for the stellar performance by Carrie Mulligan as Catherine’s flip, hip mentor, Isabella Thorpe. You can read the review An Austen Heroine with a Fertile Imagination in the Los Angeles Times, and tune in to PBS for all the horrid and romantic escapades of our heroine in the making on Sunday, January 20th at 9:00 pm.

Read additional posts about characters and quotes in my Northanger Abbey blog archive, including my introduction to our heroine Catherine Morland entitled Northanger Abbey: Acquisition of Higher Delight. Check out my musing on that despot General Tilney at my other co-blog, Jane Austen Today, and round out the Northanger coverage at Jane Austen’s World’s post on the likable hero & heroine Catherine Morland & Henry Tilney.

Northanger Abbey: Acquisition of Higher Delight

Illustration of Catherine Morland paper doll, by Donald Hendricks, Legacy DesignsACQUISITION 

To look almost pretty is an acquisition of higher delight to a girl who has been looking plain the first fifteen years of her life than a beauty from her cradle can ever receive.The Narrator on Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 1

This is our introduction to our young heroine Catherine Morland, and it is a promising beginning. I like her immediately. Jane Austen has made her real and accessible to my expectations of a young, unpretentious girl of fifteen. She could be the girl next door!

and it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books – or at least books of information.

Remind you of anyone you know? A little sister, a daughter, or yourself?

 – for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them (books), provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all. But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training for a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives.

A heroine in training! I know a few of those. What teenage girl (or adult) does not dream of being the heroine of her own life? It’s interesting to observe how different generations over the years attach to role-models. Jane Austen admired poets and writers. In my day, it was ice skating champion Dorothy Hamill. Now it’s Paris Hilton. Hmm?

She had reached the age of seventeen, without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility, without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. 

No cute guys in the neighborhood. What a drag. No wonder she has her nose in a book.

But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way … if adventures will not befall a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad …

Indeed! A heroine in the making needs to seek her destiny. Or create one!

The Gothic parody Northanger Abbey was written in 1798, when Jane Austen was 23 years old, and reflects her younger attitudes and views of her world. The theme of a young girl coming of age and her first experiences in society are played against the contrast of the horrific drama and exaggerated romance of the Gothic fiction genre that was so popular at the time. Our heroine Catherine Morland is about to embark on her own mythic journey of self discovery. The introductory chapter has set the scene for her “big adventure”.

Image of Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland, PBS Northanger Abbey (2007)Be sure to set your watches and mark your calendars for the  Masterpiece Classic adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic Gothic parody, Northanger Abbey, staring Felicity Jones as our young and impressionable heroine Catherine Morland, on Sunday, January 20th at 9:00 pm on PBS. It should prove to be a dangerously romantic evening.

*Illustration of Catherine Morland paper doll, by the very talented artist and fashion illustrator Donald Hendricks of Legacy Designs. Visit his beautiful online shop and discover his fanciful and charming illustrations of classic literary figures and contemporary celebrities.