“NORTHANGER ABBEY” (2007) Review

“NORTHANGER ABBEY” (2007) Review

As far as I know, there have only been two screen adaptations of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel, “Northanger Abbey”. The first adaptation aired back in 1986. And the most recent aired on Britain’s ITV network back in 2007, as part of a series of dramas called Jane Austen Season.

“NORTHANGER ABBEY” followed the misadventures of Catherine Morland, the 17 year-old daughter of a country clergyman and Gothic novel aficianado. She is invited by her parents’ wealthy friends, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, to accompany them on a visit the famous spa city, Bath. There, the friendly and somewhat naive Catherine becomes acquainted with Isabella Thorpe (who becomes engaged to her brother James), and her crude brother, John. She also befriends Eleanor Tilney and falls in love with the latter’s brother, the witty and charming clergyman, Henry.

The Thorpes are displeased with Catherine’s friendship with the Tilneys, due to John’s interest in making her his future wife. Both sister and brother assume that Catherine might become the future heir of the childless Allens. But when Catherine’s relationship with the Tilneys – especially Henry – grows closer, a jealous Mr. Thorpe plays a prank by falsely informing Henry and Eleanor’s father, the tyrannical General Tilney, that Catherine is an heiress. The joke leads the Tilney patriarch to invite Catherine to spend some time at the family’s estate, Northanger Abbey. There, Catherine and Henry’s relationship become romantic. However, between her penchant for Gothic novels, her overactive imagination and Mr. Thorpe’s lie; Catherine’s stay at Northanger Abbey threatens to end in disaster.

My review of the 1986 version of Austen’s tale made it pretty clear that I harbored a low opinion of it. Fortunately, I cannot say the same about this 2007 version. Mind you, there were aspects of it that I found troubling.

As in the 1986 television movie, a castle (this time Lismore Castle in Ireland) served as Northanger Abbey. Was finding an actual estate with an abbey that difficult to find? Also, screenwriter Andrew Davies seemed determined to inject some form of overt sexuality into his recent adaptations of Austen novels. In “NORTHANGER ABBEY”, he allowed the engaged Isabella Thorpe to have sex with the lecherous Captain Frederick Tilney, instead of simply flirting with him. My biggest problem with the movie turned out to be the last fifteen minutes or so. Quite frankly, I found the finale somewhat rushed. For some reason, Davies decided to exclude General Tilney’s reconciliation with Catherine and Henry.

Frankly, I found the movie’s flaws rather minor in compare to its virtues. I thought “NORTHANGER ABBEY” was a fun and delicious soufflé that proved to be one of the most entertaining 93 minutes I have ever seen on television. It is a wonderfully funny and elegant tale about the coming-of-age of the 17 year-old Catherine Morland. Andrew Davies did a pretty good job of conveying not only the charm of Catherine, but also the personal flaws that prevented her from opening her eyes to the realities of the world. But her acquaintance with the Thorpe siblings, General Tilney’s vindictiveness and Henry Tilney’s practicality finally opened those eyes. Another aspect of “NORTHANGER ABBEY” that I truly enjoyed was the array of interesting characters that participated in Catherine’s journey to young adulthood. And it took a cast of first-rate actors to bring these characters to life.

Unlike other Austen fans, I had not been impressed by Sylvestra Le Touzel’s portrayal of Fanny Price in the 1983 miniseries, “MANSFIELD PARK”. Her performance as the giddy Mrs. Allen is another matter. Le Touzel gave a deliciously zany performance as Catherine’s flighty and social-loving benefactress. And it is amazing how the actress’ skills had improved after 24 years. Liam Cunningham made an impressive and rather foreboding General Tilney. In fact, he struck me as so intimidating that a black cloud seemed to hover about every time he appeared on the screen. William Beck, who portrayed the brutish John Thorpe, did not strike me as intimidating . . . only sinister. From a physical perspective. Yet, the moment the actor skillfully embodied the character, his Mr. Thorpe became a gauche and desperate loser who injected a “demmed” in nearly every other sentence that left his mouth. Carey Mulligan was wonderfully radiant, sexy and scheming as the manipulative Isabella Thorpe. She almost seemed like an intelligent Regency sexpot, whose lack of impulse control led to her downfall. And Catherine Walker made a charming and intelligent Eleanor Tilney.

However, it seemed quite obvious to me that “NORTHANGER ABBEY” belonged to the two leads – Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild. The role of Catherine Morland proved to be Felicity Jones’ first leading role as an actress. And she proved that she was more than up to the challenge. She did an excellent job of portraying Catherine’s development from an innocent and over-imaginative bookworm to a slightly sadder and wiser young woman. More importantly, her chemistry with J.J. Feild literally crackled with fire. Speaking of Mr. Feild, I can honestly say that his Henry Tilney is, without a doubt, my favorite on-screen Austen hero of all time. Everything about his performance struck me as absolutely delicious – his charm, his pragmatism, his wicked wit and occasional cynicism and especially his voice. Pardon me for my shallowness, but Feild has one of the most spine-tingling voices among up and coming actors, today.

I also have to commend the movie’s production values. David Wilson’s production designs did an excellent job of conveying viewers back to the second half of the Regency decade. He was ably assisted by Mark Lowry’s art direction and Grania Preston’s costume designs, which struck me as simple, yet elegant and stylish. But it was Ciarán Tanham’s photography that really impressed me. The movie’s colors were rich and vibrant, yet at the same time, rather elegant. Tanham’s photography did much to project the movie’s elegant, yet colorful style.

I would never consider “NORTHANGER ABBEY” as one of the heavy-hitting Jane Austen adaptations. But it has such an elegant, yet witty aura about it that I cannot help but enjoy it very much. I was also impressed by Andrew Davies’ development of the Catherine Morland character, which lead actress Felicity Jones did a great job of transferring to the screen. “NORTHANGER ABBEY” is, without a doubt, one of the most likeable Jane Austen adaptation I have ever seen, hands down.

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