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Metropolitan, Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary

Metropolitan: 1990, Newline Cinema Clueless: Paramount, 1995 Bridget Jones's Diary: Miramax, 2001

Americans have always been fascinated by and quick to follow success. It is no wonder then, that with the recent revival of Austen films, movie-goers have also been treated to a rash of Austen updates. These films, produced by the same companies that brought us the original Austen adaptations, have each enjoyed a wide popularity and garnered a fistful of awards. They are all listed as comedies. They are all rated PG-13 or R. Wait a minute! An Austen adaptation rated R? What gives? Well, along with their other similarities- they all also share a very un-Austen like fascination with sex. It is unfortunate that the makers of such wonderful family films as Emma and Sense and Sensibility could come up with nothing funnier or more sophisticated than traditional Hollywood fare. Perhaps it is the American influence. Perhaps the screenwriters feel that, as Austen did in her day, they are simply mirroring popular culture. What remains are three films which may be funny to the majority of film audiences, but are blatently offensive to common morality and certainly not a credit to the tradition of Austen adaptations. Continue reading Metropolitan, Clueless and Bridget Jones’s Diary

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Northanger Abbey: 1986

1986 Cover for Northanger Abbey Kind critics have called it quirky. For some it is “awful” and still others call it “A fun and enjoyable adaptation of the Jane Austen novel.” Safe to say, no one is ambivalent. Written by Maggie Wadey (The Buccaneers) for the BBC in 1986 and shown on Masterpiece Theater in December of 1987, Northanger Abbey boasts fair a cast and wonderful scenery. With a different script and score it could have rivaled the Austen adaptations of the 1990’s. Instead, it remains an engaging but slightly discordant note in the Austen film symphony. It is truly unlike anything that came before or has been produced since.

As the shortest Jane Austen film on record (it clocks in at 90 minutes) Northanger Abbey lacks the time given to other adaptations for plot exposition. Indeed, while some of Austen’s best lines were allowed to remain, the writer felt compelled to add new scenes and create new characters to fill out the story, cutting the original plot still further. Perhaps Jean Bowden, Chawton Archivist said it best when she states, “They completely missed the joke.” Maggie Wadey managed to take Jane Austen funniest novel, a satire on the literature of the day, and turn it into what is touted as a Gothic fantasy. All right if you go in for that sort of thing, but certainly not Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Adding to the awkward feel of the film is the score by Ilona Sekacz (Mrs. Dalloway)- a weird mix of period appropriate, night club jazz, opera and new age music. Some people find it humorous- others, appalling.

Tooling around Bath in a Gig Filmed on location in Bath and Bodiham Castle, Kent, this movie is a treat for the eyes. The costumes, created by Nicholas Rocker, are lavish and appealing. While some of the gowns must fall into the category of pure whimsy, others are quite correct. Pelisses worn by both Eleanor Tilney and Catherine Moreland are especially attractive, as are many of the ball gowns. True to the book, Miss Tileny does indeed “always wear white.” The hairstyles are also unusual, creating a period feel, but making it difficult to place the film in any particular year.

Robert Hardy as General Tilney The cast, including costume drama perennials Robert Hardy (Sir John Middleton, Sense and Sensibility) as General Tilney and Jonathan Coy (Lt. Bracegirdle, Horatio Hornblower) as John Thorpe, does well and represents “normal” people of the period rather than the over-pretty characters we are used to seeing in Austen films. Googie Withers is charming in her role as Mrs. Allen, though Cassie Stuart (Secret Garden with Colin Firth) seems to be a bit over the top as Isabella Thorpe. The real star of this production is the beautiful Ingrid Lacey who plays Eleanor Tilney. She is the one actress in the entire film who seems to have stepped directly from the pages of Jane Austen’s novel.

Katherine Schlesinger and Peter Firth The actual stars of the film, Peter Firth (no relation to fellow actor Colin) as Henry Tilney and Katherine Schlesinger (Catherine Moreland) seem slightly miscast. Firth does well with what he has to work with, but is too old and too blond for his role. Schlesinger, playing the wide-eyed innocent to the hilt, seems almost too childish. Her constant daydreams rapidly move from amusing to disturbing. The repeated switch from reality to dream at times creates an unnerving – almost frightening atmosphere. Concluding with a highly improbable proposal scene the viewer is left to wonder just where he lost track of the storyline and how he ended up here.

Aside from the cacophony of imaginative dreams and musings, the most confusing scene in the film is, perhaps, Catherine’s descent into the Roman Baths. This is quite unlike anything in any of Austen’s books and seems almost inappropriate.Catherine and Eleanor in the Baths One reviewer has gone so far as to call it inaccurate, claiming that the baths weren’t even excavated until the 1850’s. This is wrong. While some excavations did take place in the mid 1800’s, the baths had been in use for hundreds of years and, since the visit of Queen Mary of Modena (wife of James II), were celebrated by the ‘modern’ world for their healing qualities. While most people visited Bath intent on ‘taking the waters’ internally, bathing in them was still an accepted form of medical treatment if not social practice. Consider for example, Mrs. Smith (Persuasion) “She…had been afflicted with a severe rheumatic fever, which, finally settling in her legs, had made her for the present a cripple. She had come to Bath on that account, and was now in lodgings near the hot baths… and she never quitted the house but to be conveyed into the warm bath.”

There were actually three different baths in use a the time. The Cross Bath, the Hot Bath and the King’s Bath which is located next to the Pump Room and is the one attended by Catherine and Isabella in the movie. Since this was the location frequented by “gentlefolk,” if they were to have gone bathing this would have been the spot.

There is no record of Jane Austen partaking goings on such as those portrayed in the film and indeed, by the time she arrived in Bath, it’s fashionable heyday was over. An interesting scene, it may continue to be one of the mysteries of Northanger Abbey for a long time to come. It is certainly something rarely, if ever, included in a period film and it is intriguing to see that Andrew Davies wrote a similar scene for his recent screenplay of the same novel.

With all it’s faults, Northanger Abbey does try hard and as the only version available on film, must be accepted, if only to complete the set of all Austen films to date. The best advice I have heard is, “If you are going to watch it, try to enjoy it with an open mind and no expectations.” After all, it does deserve our gratitude. If it hadn’t been for Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice Katherine Schlesinger(BBC/A&E 1995) might never have been made. It was at a screening of Northanger Abbey that writer Andrew Davies met producer Sue Birtwistle and the idea of making P&P into “a fresh, lively story about real people” was born.

Northanger Abbey is readily available on video in both VHS and PAL format, as well as on DVD. The DVD has no special features beyond a scene selection menu.

For more information on the Andrew Davies’ version of Northanger Abbey (in production) visit:The NA2 Upcoming Movie Page.

Laura Sauer is a collector of Jane Austen Films and film memorabilia. She also runs Austentation, a company that specializes in custom made Regency Accessories.

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Emma: 1972

Emma, 1972 “Oh! I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other…”
~Emma

In 1972, the BBC created what has been called “The best of the early Austen adaptations”, with their production of Emma. The third in their series of Austen films, BBC recruited the veteran writing/producing team of Martin Lisemore and Denis Constanduros (who had previously worked on Sense and Sensibility, in 1971. Denis Constanduros would later return to write the outline for 1985’s script of Sense and Sensibility.). With the help of director John Glenister (known for his other BBC projects, including A Touch of Frost and Hetty Wainthrop Investigates), they put together a funny, accurate portrayal of Jane Austen’s fourth novel.

John Carson While much of the cast seems a bit old for their parts, John Carson (Mr. Knightley) was 45 and Doran Godwin (Emma Woodhouse) well into her thirties, they did provide, looks aside, excellent portrayals of their characters. Donald Eccles (Silas Marner, 1985), I think, gives a consummate performance as the hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse. He seems to be lifted directly out of the book. The perfect invalid, longing to be a bother to no one, but afraid for everyone. Mrs. Elton (Fiona Walker) is perfectly vulgar. A triumph! Miss Bates is properly distracted.

Harriet Smith Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith are not quite so well cast. Jane remains looking pale and sickly throughout, and Harriet comes away looking like a total ninny. One wonders how Emma could stand having her around. She may have cured her of her schoolgirl’s giggle, but not, at least in this version, of her nervous ramblings and indecision. She has been likened to a kitten, all soft and playful and full of wonder, though I found her more akin to a hummingbird, flitting here and there, always a bit rattled.

Perhaps the most famous of the cast members would be Constance Chapman as Mrs. Goddard. Better known for her years as Mrs. Slocomb on Are You Being Served, she manages to play a kindly older woman quite suited to a school full of girls– all while keeping her hair a rather sedate shade of brown.

Mr Woodhouse Overall, the acting is so good, and the script so attuned to the book, that you begin to focus on the story line and even forget about the age question! Some fans were amazed by this quality and said of John Carson, that by the end of the film, they thought him to be quite handsome and were in love with him as well! The exchanges between Emma and Mr. Knightley are lively and wonderfully acted. They really seem to be friends, and carry off their exchanges with a playfulness missing in other versions.

Mrs. Goddard and Harriet Smith Also included in this version are scenes which, for the sake of time, were not added to the later films. Mrs. Weston’s confinement, Harriet’s trip to London, and Tea at the Vicarage are all given full coverage. Because this version is nearly twice as long as it’s counterparts, they also have time to expand on Harriet’s romantic mishaps and Frank and Jane’s secret liaison. The dialogue, which is often quite humorous, gives the actors a chance to express a full range of feeling. Almost as much is told by what is not said! Facial expressions and double entendre are a valuable part of this production.

While this may not be the most visually stunning of all Emma adaptations, it is very apparent that great attention was given to detail. It is obvious that this was filmed on television sets, and the outdoor scenes do leave a lot to be desired. Much of this, however, like the actors themselves, soon becomes of no consequence, as you are swept away by the storyline and acting ability shown.

Emma Woodhouse The costumes in the film were designed by Joan Ellacot. Her goal was to make the actors, and indeed the whole production “look as genuine and real as possible.” Towards that end, she chose to replicate the looks of 1815. *“It’s easy for today’s audiences to dismiss the old BBC costumes as “polyester specials” because of the dating and dulling effects of the videotape and harsh fluorescence used in taping. However, most of the designs used in this production were well-researched and carefully selected. Many of the costumes were reused in later BBC productions during the 1970’s, notably the 1979 version of Pride & Prejudice starring Elizabeth Garvie. As with the other Emmas, the design team chose styles, colors, and accessories to indicate class, age, and personality. Harriet wears youthful, patterned frocks in soft colors and bright bonnets. Emma wears regal styles in sophisticated colors, including an ermine-lined cape and a maroon spencer with appliqued designs. Mrs. Weston wears somber colors in modest styles.”

Emma is available on video in both PAL and VHS form from 20th Century Fox and BBC Video. It, like the other early BBC adaptations is sold as a two tape set and runs for 257 mins.

*From Kali Pappas’ “Emma Page”.

Laura Sauer is a collector of Jane Austen Films and film memorabilia. She also runs Austentation, a company that specializes in custom made Regency Accessories.

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Mansfield Park: 1983

Mansfield ParkIn 1983 BBC once again took on Jane Austen, this time choosing her longest novel- Mansfield Park. Their adaptation, which was directed by by David Giles (who also directed Hetty Wainthrop) contains a cast of wonderfully lifelike characters, many of whom would go on to play other Austen rolls. The leads, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, were played by Sylvestra Le Touzel (Vanity Fair) and Nicholas Farrell (Chariots of Fire, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet). Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram were portrayed by Angela Pleasence and Bernard Hepton (A&E’s Emma). Samantha Bond (A&E’s Emma, James Bond) played Maria Bertram-Rushworth. Perhaps the strangest Austen connection stems from the young actor who played Fanny Price’s younger brother, Charles. Sixteen years later, he would return to again act in a Mansfield Park adaptation, this time as Edmund. His name? Jonny Lee Miller.

Sylvestra Le Touzel Mansfield Park may be the hardest of any of Austen’s novels to film. Despite recent efforts, there has not yet been an entirely satisfactory filming of it. Part of this difficulty may arise from the heavy nature of the plot substance (immorality, seduction, adultery)- especially in light of the friendly atmospheres of Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Mansfield Park lacks their spunky, if slightly cheeky heroines. Fanny Price is very moral and kind, but not altogether exciting. In short, very much unlike anything Jane Austen had written before. While the 1999 version of Mansfield Park “improves” upon Fanny and adds to her character, this 1983 adaptation tries to remain faithful to the original. Perhaps they try too hard. Fanny ends up coming across as nervous and flighty. As one viewer put it: “If you can get past Le Touzel’s odd mannerism of making little chopping movements with her open-palmed hand for emphasis, this is a faithful adaptation of the novel.”

Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram Farrell makes a pious and convincing Edmund. Robert Burbage, as Henry Crawford, is appropriately egotistical and licentious–if a bit rodent like. Julia is forgettable as is most of the Price clan. It is up to Angela Pleasence (an amazingly insipid Lady Bertram) and Jackie Smith-Wood, as the catty Mary Crawford to carry the cast. One fan commented: “The only memorable performance is by Jackie Smith-Wood. . . who brings out all her superficial charm, her shallowness, and, finally, her amorality. In this movie, she comes off as a much more sympathetic character than Fanny.”

Filmed on location in many of the great houses of England, this adaptation also uses a few studio shots which cut down on the lush atmosphere being presented. While one must remember this was filmed for television on a much smaller budget than we have grown accustomed to seeing, the action tends to be slower and more elaborate than you may be used to. Perhaps the words of one disillusioned viewer put it best: “This is a stylish, well-costumed, and soulless version of a great book.” Despite a good script (which delves deeper into the life of the Crawfords than its modern counterpart, and gives William Price his rightful place in Fanny’s life) and talent, this film flows along at a languid pace, even becoming a bit dull at times. Considering the new Miramax version, though, one may contend that this is a blessing. Better to err on the side of conservitivism than on that of sensationalism.

Nicholas Farrell Worth special mention, and definitely the cost of the rental, are the hairstyles sported by the men in the film. One author of Jane Austen at the Movies stated that she was always distracted when Edmund came on screen. “By what?”, You ask? His “awful” hairstyle. I did not find it that unusual…especially in light of one which I think deserves the most attention. Watch for Robin Langford’s Mr. Yates. Only seeing is believing, in this case. A description would not be able to do it justice.

Produced by the BBC and made available in the USA by CBS/Fox, Mansfield Park runs for 261 minutes and is available as a two video set in both VHS and PAL format. Try Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

Laura Sauer is a milliner and runs Austentation,
an online business specializing in Regency accessories.

Enjoyed this article? Visit our giftshop and escape into the world of Jane Austen.

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Austen’s Appeal

With the upcoming release of Northanger Abbey, the last of Jane Austen’s six major novels to be filmed in the past few years, there is much questioning as to why Jane Austen, long the staple of high school English Literature classes, has become so wildly popular. In a world filled with rudeness and disrespect, she has gained not only a loyal following (though there has always been a faithful remnant), but worldwide media acclaim such as she did not experience even during her lifetime!

P&P Video Cover

Many people claim that it is the movies made in the last five years that have caused this meteoric rise in popularity, making Jane Austen a household name and her works blockbuster successes. However, twenty years ago the same books were transferred to film without the same results. Better actors you say? Well, there is something to be said for that, as well as the fact that these new movies have larger budgets. I think, though, that the real answer lies in a changing mindset of today’s women. Without interest in these stories, the movies would never have been made. Continue reading Austen’s Appeal

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Pride and Prejudice: 1979

Pride and Prejudice In 1979, Pride and Prejudice was once again tapped for screen material. This time it was the BBC who put forth their efforts on behalf of Jane Austen (though the forty years between tries were by no means the “Dark Ages”. There were several television and radio adaptations, which sadly have not been transferred to video. I am concentrating on the video adaptations at this time.) This Pride and Prejudice (P&P1) was shown in the USA in five episodes on Masterpiece Theater between October 26 and November 23, 1980. Continue reading Pride and Prejudice: 1979