Sunday, March 25, 2007

Northanger Abbey

After last weeks disappointing "Mansfield Park", I sat down to watch Northanger Abbey with not a little trepidation. Thankfully, I enjoyed it a lot more than the previous film, which is somewhat due to the fantastic writing of Andrew Davies (yes, he of "Pride and Prejudice" fame). He understands what is entertaining, and more importantly doesn't stifle Austen's innate, wry wit, a crime committed by Maggie Wadey in "Mansfield Park". The script stuck to the story with fidelity, with only few oddly stricken notes.

Felicity Jones played Catherine Morland, who was imbued with the wide eyed naivety required, who having been brought up on a diet of lurid novels, is quite ready for an adventure. As the mysterious voice-over told us, at which point my heart sank: not another blinking voice-over. Mercifully the voice-over only reappeared at the end and didn't impinge on the story at all.

Catherine's daydreams certainly put mine to shame, but then mine tend to revolve around confectionery, usually pastry based, and occasionally, violent acts of retribution towards my co workers. I also tend to steer clear of books of the ilk of "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and have a sneaking suspicion that I have led too sheltered a life. Catherine spends her reveries in fleeing saturnine and glowering men around dark, Gothic castle, complete with flowing locks and a floaty dress.

Catherine gets her chance at an adventure when Mr and Mrs Allen ask her to accompany the Bath as Mr Allen is somewhat gouty. Mr Allen (Desmond Barrit), though old and slightly infirm, shows himself to be quite a heroic person, as when Brigands attack the coach she and the Allen's are travelling in, he starts to fight them off with his crutch. Alas this all transpires to be one of Cathy's fantasies and Mr. Allen eventually reaches Bath with nary a hair out of place.

Bath was well created, with plenty of rampaging carriages, out of whose way the pedestrians must leap to safety as they barrel along at quite a lick. Anyway, once Mrs. Allen and Catherine have hit the shops for a new dress, or twelve, they make their entrance in the Assembly rooms, which are packed. Cathy and Mrs. Allen have to fight their way through the throng until they get to the tea room and have to race for the final two seats at the tea table. Which they have to quit, as there aren't any tea things and people are looking at them funny. The problem transpires that Mrs. Allen can't talk to anyone without first being introduced and as she doesn't know anyone, she can't just walk up and start chatting.

This impasse if only ended when Henry Tilney brushes past the ladies and apparently sticks Mrs. Allen with a pin. He transpires to be extremely knowledgeable about muslin, is complimentary toward both ladies and with a twitch of an eye manages to get two seats vacated for the ladies. To prevent any impropriety he then arranges an introduction from the Master of Ceremonies to allow conversation and the invitation of a dance with added devilish smirk, but only the one mind you, with Miss Morland.

JJ Feild was Henry Tilney and he is the other reason I found this film so satisfying; he's definitely easy on the eye, and portrayed Henry with charm, wit and intelligence. More importantly he can act and he looks good in britches. Though if I were him, I'd ask my agent to get me some modern dress work, I've seen him in three films: "Mrs. Beeton", "The Ruby in the Smoke" and now this. All good solid period drama, but very heavy on the tight trouser front.

I don't blame Catherine's subsequent fantasy of a devilish Henry interrupts her bath, which must have been incredibly draughty as it took place in wood. This is one of the scenes that I found slightly too modern, Catherine imagining Henry in her bath chamber was racy enough, but having her stand up in all her nakedness was just too much. Henry on the other hand looked entirely happy.

His sister Eleanor is played by Catherine Walker, and is the embodiment of sense, manners and kindness. She is the complete opposite to Carey Mulligan's dimpled, man-hungry, simpering Isabella Thorpe.

Her sweet face and demeanor mask a shallow and scheming soul, despite plighting her troth to the plain and good hearted James Morland, she then courts ruin by consorting, in a most un-Austen like way with lusty, chisel jawed Frederick Tilney (Mark Dymond). Scandalous.

Isabella is probably the most interesting character in the film, she's capable of sweetness, kindness and is friendly, but dig a little deeper and she's venal, greedy and scheming. Despite that, you can't help but to warm to her when, after she and Catherine have been spotted by two young and handsome men in a bookshop, they haughtily exit like duchesses, only to speed into a jog up an alley to catch up with them, so Isabella can flaunt her impressive decollete at them.

Several times I feared for that girl's bosoms, she was squeezed into frocks that were so low cut that nipple-skimming is an apt word.

As wolfish John Thorpe (William Beck) is sweet on Catherine and they are soon to be related by marriage, the Thorpe's make claims on her time and conspire to get Catherine to go on carriage rides by deception. The Tilney's have already made plans with Catherine, for a walk, but John insists that he saw them heading in the other direction on a different excursion and manages to get Catherine to come with them on a carriage ride.

If this were a modern day adaptation, John would drive a souped up Audi with tinted windows, bling hub-caps and the type of sound system, with bass so deep that it causes tectonic shifts. He drives so fast that Catherine needs two hands to keep her bonnet on and he doesn't stop, either, when he nearly runs over Mr. Allen, who angrily shakes his crutch at them, or when she spies the Tilney's walking along and wants to get off. His lame excuse is that he wanted to get to know her and that his sister couldn't possibly be left on her own with her brother, it wouldn't be proper.

Needless to say, with such an inauspicious start, the excursion does not end happily, they end up stuck behind a flock of recalcitrant sheep, in the pouring rain. William Beck makes an interesting and charismatic John Thorpe, but unfortunately has little to do and never for a moment does he pose a serious threat to Henry Tilney for Catherine's affections.

Catherine makes her peace with both Henry and Catherine at the opera and comes to the attention of their father, the stern and strict General Tilney (Liam Cunningham), who makes enquiries about her and is told by John Thorpe that she is an heiress, soon to inherit from the infirm Mr. Allen. With his interest piqued, the General asks Catherine to stay as Northanger Abbey, their home.

Catherine's imagination now goes into overdrive, imagining rugged men tying Isabella to a bed in a diaphanous nightie and being pursued by persons unknown through a dark and forbidding castle.

Once at the castle, after conversations with Eleanor, she becomes strangely convinced that General Tilney, murdered his wife and decides to investigate the nefarious actions of that forbidding man. She finds some papers one night in a chest in her room and when the light is extinguished by a gust of wind, scuttles quickly off to bed. The following morning, she finds that the papers are only laundry lists, but this doesn't deter her and she goes off to search for Mrs. Tilney's bedchamber.
One thing to note about Catherine's bedroom is the size of the wardrobe, it was so large that not only could it house all of Catherine's family (all ten children!), you could probably squeeze Narnia in there as well.

Meanwhile, back in Bath, while wearing a symbolic red feather, Isabella is deflowered by Frederick Tilney and piteously asks if they're engaged now. Doh! Haven't you seen the length of his sideburns love? Sideburns like these only grace the faces of dissolute, rakish reprobates. Next time take a ruler with you.

When Catherine is found snooping in Mrs. Tilneys dusty room by Henry, she confesses her theory and is castigated by him for entertaining such a stupid notion. That night she is woken by Eleanor and told that she has to leave immediately as they have a hitherto forgotten engagement. So poor Catherine, believing that Henry has told his father her assumptions, is sent away and is forced to share a coach with unwashed rustic types, who offer her what looks to be raw tongue as a repast, which she declines politely and one man who travels with a pot of liquor in one hand and live goose in the other.

Once home, Catherine burns her copy of "The Mysteries of Udolpho" as she has realised that life is not a Gothic fantasy and gets on with teaching her adorable little brothers how to read.

Soon after, Henry comes to call to apologise and after politely drinking the proffered lemonade, he asks Catherine to accompany him to see the Allen's. An annoying sister pipes up that you can see the house from here, evidently believing Henry to be a dunce, but Mrs. Morland shushes her and practically shoves Catherine out of the door with him.

Of course this is a costume drama, so a proposal is now offered and accepted and all is happy ever after. Apart from Isabella who desperately tried to get James back via Catherine, and General Tilney, who is estranged from Henry and apparently now spends most of his time grumpily striding through grounds of his estate alone.

All in all, a fabulous adaptation, not a classic, but a distinct improvement on "Mansfield Park" and it was witty, funny and enjoyable. With fantastic performances from all concerned, who said their lines believably, lush locations and many women with feathers in their hair (there must be some mighty cold ostriches somewhere), I thoroughly enjoyed it. And especially, kudos should go to Andrew Davies, whose script was funny, raunchy and very, very good!

An interview with Andrew Davies can be found here.

Northanger Abbey RadioTimes Article

From the wonderful Austenblog (courtesy of Janeite Kathleen) comes a scan of the Northanger Abbey article in the RadioTimes.

Let's see if this JA adaptation is better than the last...

Monday, March 19, 2007

Mansfield Park

I like Jane Austen, I loved "Pride and Prejudice" (with added wet Colin Firth, who didn't?), I loved the film version of "Sense and Sensibility" and I love the books with out question. So when ITV announced an series of Austen adaptations I was excited, but also a bit nervous, because the BBC do costume dramas a lot better than ITV. But I sat down, to watch Mansfield Park with a large cup of tea and big hopes.

The cast was youthful, with two very recognisable faces in prominent roles: Billie Piper as Fanny Price and Michelle Ryan as Maria Bertram. In addition to whom, Hayley Atwell played the scheming Mary Crawford and Catherine Steadman played Julia Bertram.

The boys in breeches were: Rory Kinnear as Mr. Rushworth, Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram, Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford and the delicious but sadly little used James D'Arcy as Tom Bertram. Adding some age and gravitas to the cast were Maggie O'Neill as Aunt Norris, Jemma Redgrave as Lady Bertram and Douglas Hodge as Sir Thomas Bertram, who were both far too young to be the parents of such aged children, did they start popping the sprogs out when they were 12?

Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, a poor relative taken to live with her rich Aunt and Uncle as their home and is brought up alongside her cousins Maria, Julia, Tom and Edmund. Out of all her cousins only kind Edmund takes any notice of her and is kind to her. We are told this in Fanny's voiceover, which is never a good sign. I'm not a fan of voiceovers. As I'm familiar with the novel, I tend to find them patronising. In this case it was used as exposition, but it did feel a bit clunky.

After beginning with the brief introduction of young Fanny at Mansfield Park, the story speeds forward to a now grown up Fanny Price and her cousins. Maria is a vain woman, engaged to be married to Mr. Rushworth, who is a silly man and infatuated with Maria. Julia her sister is Maria's twin in all but years and Tom is a layabout, drunk and gambler. Only Edmund is steadfast and good, and is just about to be ordained as a clergyman.

While Sir Thomas is away on business in the West Indies, trouble comes to call in the shape of brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, a handsome pair of siblings, with flowing locks on one side and the obligatory period drama bosoms on the other.

You know they are going be bad news, his cravat is unnecessarily flouncy and she wears very fancy hats. Their plan is to marry Henry off to Julia, while Mary sets her sights on Tom. Things do not go to plan, Henry catches the eye of the already engaged Maria and Mary has to make do with Edmund as Tom is out carousing and betting on horses. Both Henry and Mary are shallow but calculating characters and they are portrayed very well by the actors. Unfortunately neither of them is entirely capable of speaking in regency grammar and sounding authentic. Almost all the characters are unable to make the period dialogue sound convincing and realistic and it shows.

The Crawfords convince the Bertrams to put on a play, how racy! Which eventually comes to nothing as Sir Thomas returns from the West Indies and shows his disapproval by glowering and burning the scripts, by which time Mary has beguiled Edmund, to the disapproval and disappointment of Fanny.

Maria foolishly marries Mr. Rushworth, who was brilliantly brought to life by Rory Kinnear (an actor who I think will go far) as a vain, foppish and silly man. Sir Thomas in a fit of insight, plainly asks Maria if she is happy to marry Rushworth, as he has noticed her attraction to Henry. Maria replies that she is very happy to marry Mr. Rushworth and so they are married and Maria leaves the family home for her own in London.

Now Henry deprived of Maria and the younger Julia turns his attentions to Fanny, he seems quite taken with her sweetness and in his pursuit of her affections arranges to get her sailor brother William a commission on a ship.

Unfortunately when Henry comes to propose, Fanny turns him down, she only has eyes for Edmund; this makes her Aunt and Uncle unhappy. Aware that Fanny is poor and therefore not particularly marriageable, they are horrified that she refused. As punishment they leave poor Fanny all alone in the house while they go to visit Lady Bertram's sister. This made me quite angry, the writer deviated from the book considerably by entirely writing out the rest of Fanny's family, whom she goes to visit (in the book) instead of rattling around a house on her own. Regardless of that deviation, this treatment of course has no effect as, Mr Crawford is again rebuffed when he comes to call.

By this point Edmund is a certified clergyman and Mary Crawford is pleading with him to take up law instead to of the church, despite her attraction to Edmund she doesn't want to even dance with a clergyman, let alone marry one.

When Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram return home, they bring Tom back with them. He is gravely ill, as his drinking and carousing have left him very ill. But you'll be glad to know after the icky application of leeches (ew) and bed rest, with Fanny reading the Racing Post to him, he's soon better. Edmund is also home to check on his brother, and this is when the news reaches them that Mr Crawford, reeling after Fanny's cruel rejection, retreated to London where he visited Maria Rushworth and was comforted by her ample bosom. Scandalous. Of course Aunt Norris avers that it's all Fanny's fault, if she hadn't refused Mr Crawford, Maria would never have been in that situation.

Mary Crawford, trying to salvage something from the now extremely awkward situation, tries to get Edmund to intervene and get Henry and Maria married, so that the path to Edmund and her own nuptials be smoothed. Edmund finally sees Mary for the scheming gold digger she is and sends her packing.

Edmund eventually sees that Fanny is the girl for him, in the most hammy acting I've ever seen. The realisation that he loves Fanny dawns over his face in a second and he practically does a double take of Fanny. He may as well have stood up and said: "Why Miss. Price, you're beautiful!" Before you know it, they're married and are waltzing on the lawn.

The problem with the film was not the cast, they were uniformly good, with extra kudos, from me at least, going to Jemma Redgrave and Douglas Hodge playing the indolent Lady Bertram and the slightly tyrannical Sir Thomas respectively. They were such an engaging couple that I wanted the story to focus more on them than on the younger cast. This is never a good thing especially when they aren't the main focus of the story.

Setting aside the changes made to the story, the cast were good, who were unfortunately not entirely able to carry off the period dialogue realistically and this was a big problem. I didn't see them as the characters and Billie as Fanny Price was sweet, toothsome and winsome, but that just wasn't enough. The writer Maggie Wadey managed to take the story and iron nearly every piece of wit and humour out of it. Aunt Norris should've been a figure of ridicule and humour, instead when she finally leaves to live with Maria, you're glad to see that back of the old bat!

It's impossible not to measure this production up against the juggernaut that was "Pride and Prejudice", which just isn't fair, on it's own merits it was perfectly fine, but compare it and the lack of humour, uneven script and a relatively young cast, mean that it although it was enjoyable, it's not going to go down as a classic. Despite this, when Fanny and Edmund dance on the lawn at their wedding, I had a huge grin on my face, what can I say, I'm a sucker for a happy ending.

Jane Austen Article Scans

It's been a long time since I've posted, sorry, that's just down to complete laziness ( and the worst sore throat ever!), I promised some Jane Eyre DVD snark, but it's been so long since I watched the extras, I've forgotten what I wanted to write. Which means that I'll have to watch them again! Oh the hardship...

Any way, while I rewatch, I bring you another Jane: Jane Austen that is. ITV have just started their Jane Austen season, which include films of Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. I've scanned in the Radio Times articles for your perusal. Click to make them big!
The lovely leading ladies.

Page one.

Page two.

Billie Piper blurbette and finally (below) the preview.

And if that's not enough Jane Austen for you, please check out ITV's flash tastic Jane Austen website and the RadioTime's interviews with the three leading ladies, in which Billie very candidly describes the hardship of peeing in costume...