Whew. The Complete Jane Austen has been saved by the charming performances of J.J. Feild and Felicity Jones as Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. Had PBS opted to follow ITV’s tepid Persuasion with the very problematic Mansfield Park, they would likely have lost scores of viewers who might not have returned for a third dose of another truncated adaptation of a Jane Austen novel.
Not knowing what to expect, I watched my preview DVD with some trepidation, only to lose myself in this sparkling and delightful adaptation. I have no illusions when it comes to comparing a 90-minute video to a complete novel written by a master writer: in my opinion the novel wins hands down every time. No debate. But director Jon Jones made the most of his short video time, combining dialogue with visual clues in such a deft way that one comes away from the movie feeling almost satisfied with this retelling of Jane’s gothic parody. Keep in mind that, as with all these adaptations, the subtleties and complexities of subplots and supporting character were scarcely given the passing time of day.
Be that as it may, the scene in which Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen first enter the Lower Assembly Rooms in Bath demonstrates the director’s brilliant visual touches. Romance and regency authors frequently describe the “crush” at an assembly ball. This scene SHOWS it, with Mrs. Allen and Catherine elbowing their way through the crowd in dimly lit rooms and halls and doorways. One can almost smell the candle smoke and feel the heat of bodies pressing against each other, and smell the sweat of the dancers as they move energetically in a confined space. In her novel, Jane Austen took an enormous time describing Northanger Abbey both inside and out. Thankfully, the camera can show these descriptions in minutes, using interior and exterior shots as backdrops. For those of us who live outside of England, the scenery and sets alone make this production worth watching.
The casting was superb. J.J. Feild was smart, charming, and appropriately “almost handsome” as Jane described Henry Tilney. The adorable Felicity Jones was believable in her role as a naïve and gullible young woman who allowed her imagination to run rampant. In her fantasy scenes, with her thick dark hair flowing freely, Felicity convincingly resembled a lush and delectable maid in distress. Cary Mulligan as the flashy, brassy Isabella Thorpe nearly stole all her scenes. Liam Cunningham as General Tilney hit all the right villain notes, and William Beck was satisfyingly slimy as John Thorpe. My only major quibble with the casting was of Catherine Walker, whose drab Eleanor Tilney seemed to dissolve into the woodwork. Click here to view the characters and read a short bio about them.
As with recent Jane Austen adaptations, liberties were taken with the plot. Jane never described Isabella naked in bed after making love to Captain Tilney, nor does she have Catherine fantasize herself nude in front of Henry. Those who know me well know that I am no prude, but I attribute such scenes to the influence of Andrew Davies, who seems to think that a sexed up Jane Austen production is appropriate and right. Frankly, that’s a man’s point of view, and in this respect Mr. Jon Jones has sunk to the same level, thinking that sex will sell Jane to a new audience. Those of us who are comfortable using both sides of our brains know that Jane needs no such obvious and infantile interpretations to win fans over. Her words are good enough.
Speaking of fans, I am convinced this delightful production will influence many a young viewer to head towards their libraries to read a Jane Austen novel for the first time. And that thought gives me great pleasure. If you missed Northanger Abbey because of Iron Chef, check your local listing. Many PBS stations, such as the one in Richmond, have placed it on their schedule for a second night.