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.
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.
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.
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. 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 (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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