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.


Fi said...

Lol at another great critique, Penny!

I enjoyed Persuasion much more again, thought it was pretty well done, definitely the best of the bunch and excellent chemistry between the gorgeous Rupert Penry Jones and the incredibly talented and lucky Sally Hawkins (lucky cos she got to stand so close to him and get a snog at the end - see next sentence for further drooling details). Loved the penultimate scene, possibly the most tantalising kiss scene in costume drama, ever! The build up was so long I found myself shouting at the tele "go on, go on, you can do it" by the time their lips finally met, lol!

Hope we will get a witty critique of Persuasion from you?

Cheers, Fi.

pennyforyourdreams said...

Hi Fi!

Ah Persuasion, I meant to write something over the bank holiday, but decided to sit in the sunshine instead, lazy girl that I am. I will write something, Rupert Penry-Jones' breeches must not pass by without a mention.

I too was screeching, "just get on with it!" at the kissing scene. God love, you've waited seven years and now you're not sure.

All the best,

Mai said...

I visit you all days...
I miss you!!
PS. Great critique ;)
Ps2. Sorry for my English

pennyforyourdreams said...

Mai, you and your comment are very sweet! Thank you.

I have to apologise for not posting, I have been very lazy.

And don't apologise, your english is great! Believe me, I wouldn't be able to speak spanish or understand it to the extent that you can English. I wish I could though, your blog looks great!