ITV’s recent version of Northanger Abbey is a far better production than their take on Mansfield Park, as I’d expected and hoped, with Andrew Davies as the scriptwriter. The dialogue is very crisp and convincing, as always with Davies – no clunkingly modern lines to break the spell. This is also a much better film than the previous BBC version of Northanger Abbey, which was something of an embarrassment and to me didn’t get the tone of the book. However, it still feels short at 93 minutes and – inevitably – has to leave out an awful lot of the novel.
I also feel it is slightly flat compared to the sharp wit of Austen, something which comes from losing the narrator’s voice. Davies does actually keep the narrator at the start and end (I think Geraldine James provides the voice) but there is no narrator cutting in the rest of the time, which I’d rather hoped there might be at key points.
With this version, my feeling is that the problem isn’t so much the time constraints, although it is still short at 90 minutes, but the lack of filming on location in Bath, apparently to save money. Most of it was filmed in Dublin and it does look beautiful, but I miss Bath’s famous streets and buildings – and there’s nothing like that extraordinary scene in the 1980s film of the ladies taking the waters in their fine dresses.
Felicity Jones is very wide-eyed and young-looking, and convincing as a heroine starting out on life in eager expectation. She wears far less revealing clothes than Billie Piper did in MP. However, Isabella (Carey Mulligan) does wear low-cut dresses – this seems deliberate as she tries to attract attention from passing men. One change in Davies’ version is that we glimpse Isabella in bed with Captain Tilney before she is casually cast aside. She asks “Are we engaged now?”, but is curtly told to put on her clothes and go. I thought this was a poignant moment.
Catherine Walker is also very good as Eleanor – she reminds me a little of Emma Thompson as Elinor in the 1995 movie of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ with that quiet self-control and feeling of staying in the background.
The dangers of reading novels are stressed, but my feeling was that this is done with less affection than in in the novel, where Austen’s vivid knowledge and enjoyment of Ann Radcliffe’s book comes across even as she lightly mocks her melodrama. Davies does enjoy playing up the sexual content of the Gothic element, with Catherine, played by Felicity Jones, dreaming scenes from Udolpho mixed up with her fantasies about Henry Tilney.
Catherine’s reading of Udolpho features strongly in this adaptation, but references to another Gothic novel, Matthew Lewis’ The Monk are added in as well, building on a brief passage in the book where John Thorpe says he never reads novels, but read The Monk the other day. Davies includes a sexy Gothic dream sequence based on The Monk. As Henry Tilney (JJ Feild) discusses Radcliffe with Catherine, whereas Thorpe (William Beck) is the one suggesting she should read The Monk , perhaps this is supposed to be an oblique comment on the difference in character between the two. Just guessing here as I’ve never read The Monk. I was dismayed to see Catherine burning her copy of Udolpho after being sent home, though I imagine the fact that it features prominently in the film may well get more people to read it, alongside Northanger Abbey.
I don’t think Davies’s Tilney is as witty as Austen’s – and he seems more vulnerable than I’ve ever thought of the character being, maybe because he is played by JJ Feild, a fine actor who has a vulnerable quality to him. He played the young Michael Caine character in the film of Last Orders and was also Sam Beeton in the BBC film The Secret Life of Mrs Beeton, a film I loved which was also directed by Northanger Abbey director Jon Jones. Here Henry has tears in his eyes when he upbraids Catherine about her thinking his father is a murderer. I miss some of the wit and lightheartedness of Austen’s Henry, although those elements are still there – just with a note of slight melancholy added in at times.
I was struck by the fact that at the end Henry seems to turn on himself and criticise himself for having upbraided Catherine earlier when she suspected murder. He recognises that in a way she was right about his father after all, saying he killed his mother through “a kind of vampirism” – marrying her for her money and then sucking the life out of her through his coldness and unkindness. I think this is implied in Austen but not stated outright like this. For me this worked well, as a revelation of the “real” horror behind all the Gothic imaginings – the money-worship behind the black veil, so to speak.
Connected to this, Liam Cunningham is outstanding as General Tilney, in a performance which is nothing like the pantomime villain antics of Robert Hardy in the 1980s film. Instead, this General is all cold politeness with a sort of sliminess about him. Every time he speaks both his children start involuntarily and sort of shrink away very slightly, nothing melodramatic about it, but it tells.