NORTHANGER ABBEY (1986) REVIEW
Northanger Abbey was the last of the Jane Austen movies the BBC released in the ’80s. From my own informal wanderings as a Jane Austen fan around the internet, this might be one of the more maligned of the Jane Austen adaptations. Discussions of it among Jane Austen fans often involves wincing and complaints about the actors and many of the director’s choices. I actually understand or even agree with some of the criticisms for this movie, yet despite it all, I love it. It’s one of my favorite adaptations, and here’s why.
Probably what colors my perception the most is that this Northanger Abbey is probably my first ever Austen adaptation. When I look back at this movie, I recall watching it thrilled with the dreamy quality and the romance of the story. Since I didn’t have access to it on DVD at the time, whenever I saw the movie on the TV schedule, (it inevitably would be airing at some unearthly hour of the morning) I would set my alarm to wake me up, so I could watch it. I don’t even think I had read the book then. As my first Jane Austen film adaptation, it’s no wonder I love it. Sort of how you usually love your first Doctor (Nine of course!) even though you may grow to love others eventually.
Anyway, this Northanger Abbey follows the plot of the book closely which should be pleasing for purists. Catherine Morland is a disingenuous, guileless young woman who is invited to visit Bath with her neighbors. It is her first big visit to a place so full of delights and temptations, friends and non-friends, and having been brought up in a sensible, down to earth environment, Catherine is not always equipped to deal with devious people. She’s also enamored of the melodramatic novels which were popular at the time, and they influence some of her views of the world, sometimes blinding her to reality. During her time in Bath, she makes new friends, has adventures and misadventures and makes the acquaintance of the captivating and delightful Henry Tilney and his family.
The 1986 film adaptation has drawn criticism in a variety of ways. The treatment of the story is a big one. A close reading of the book shows that Jane Austen pokes fun at the melodrama of novels of the time, so very often something that could be dramatic or mysterious turns out to be rather mundane. The producers of this film sometimes seem to forget this and go for a rather more eerie atmosphere. As I mentioned, Catherine spends quite a bit of time in the book reading novels and having some rather wild imaginings based on her reading. This adaptation chooses to show this by depicting Catherine’s dreams and fantasies on screen, often the people she knows in real life figure as the heroes and villains in these. (The 2007 adaptation does something similar.) The dreams can be strange and a bit lurid, sometimes leaving the viewer wondering if what we saw was real or not. In addition, when Catherine arrives at the abbey, it’s supposed to be a more modern, unadventurous location than the name suggests, this movie’s Northanger Abbey looks a bit more forbidding.
I’ve seen complaints as well about Peter Firth who plays Henry Tilney. He is a bit old for the character. He was in his thirties when this movie came out while the Henry in the book would have been in his twenties. Some have protested that Firth does not have the look of the character, but I think that is a rather subjective argument. You could say I suppose that Firth is not conventionally handsome, but even that could be argued.
The music in this movie is one of the strangest choices about it, as it sometimes incorporates saxophones and other instrumentation which I find distracts rather than enhances the scenes which is a no-no for a soundtrack.
Like I said, I can actually understand or even relate to these complaints, but the fun I get out of this movie outweighs the disadvantages for me. I enjoy the characters in this. Kate Schlessinger does a good job of portraying an unworldly girl filled with eagerness and joy in her new surroundings. Appropriately, Peter Firth comes across as playful and teasing. Sometimes he seems more mysterious than he ought, but when I first saw this adaptation I was intrigued by him, and I still am. Within the sometimes fantastical atmosphere of the story, at times, his conversation almost seems like talking with someone in an Alice in Wonderland book. (A book and a world I like very much, so you may guess my opinion on this.) While explaining to Catherine how important it is not to confuse fantasy with reality he explains with a teasing smile, “But art is as different from reality as water from air, but if you mistake water for air, you drown. Of course, if you are a fish, then the danger lies in the air.”
Some characters seem a bit over the top, but I appreciate them because of it. As Isabella Thorpe, Cassie Stuart preens and simpers and flirts to the extreme and does it very well. Robert Hardy as General Tilney is a fine villain – loud, intimidating, almost boorish. We can completely understand his iron hold on his household and the misery he inflicts on his children. Googie Withers is a sweet Mrs. Allen who is quite preoccupied with appearances as she ought. And Eleanor….. how I like this Eleanor who always wears white (as Mrs. Allen mentions in the book). Ingrid Lacey is just the person Eleanor should be. The story gives her some dialogue which isn’t in the book but which I think echoes Jane Austen’s attitude throughout all her books perfectly. As she explains about her secret romance with a suitor to Catherine, she says, “And you know I shall do nothing foolish for I value good sense above all things.” “Even in love?” Catherine asks. “Most of all in love,” says Eleanor, a true Jane Austen heroine.
Even though as I said, the story leans toward a gothic, dreamlike quality which departs from the books, again I was intrigued. You get pulled into the fantasies of Catherine, and some of the stranger choices do a fair job of showing exactly how odd actual dreams can be. The few additions to the plot don’t necessarily detract from it. Some are unnecessary like a macabre woman known as the Marchioness who dramatically survived the French Revolution and who is the General’s gossipy friend. However, I like the addition of a scene where Henry confronts his father over his behavior, a segment which is not in the book but which I greatly appreciated for its tension and conflict.
One thing Jane Austen purists might enjoy is that many of the scenes were actually filmed in Bath, a common haunt of the author herself. It was particularly fascinating to me to see the characters in their regency garb taking the waters in the famous Roman Baths.
I think what captivated me the most as I watched this series in the early hours years ago was of course the romance of the story. The attraction between Catherine and Henry is strongly evident. He is delighted with her, and she is charmed by him. The allure between them culminates in one of the most passionate kisses I’ve ever seen in a movie. No, I’m not exaggerating here. I might concede to every other criticism of this film, but I won’t relent on this one. It’s a moment that adds some points to the film for me. The whole build up to it is riveting and the payoff just right.
Would I hold this adaptation up to being equal to the later 2007 version? No. There are fewer problems with that one and it gets major points for starring the incomparable J.J. Feild, but I think Northanger Abbey fans should still consider the 1986 film.
I’d encourage anyone who’s heard negative comments about this adaptation of Northanger Abbey to give it a chance. Take a look at it with an open mind or, at least, expect some unusual directing choices, but I think it’s possible to find a lot to enjoy here. Expect a quirky, unusual adaptation with some excellent characters and a dreamlike story and sit back and indulge in this offbeat journey.
Photo Credit: BBC
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