"NORTHANGER ABBEY" (1986) Review
Most movie and television adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels are either highly acclaimed or perhaps even liked by fans and critics alike. I can only think of two or three adaptations that have been dismissed them. And one of them happened to be the 1986 A&E Network/BBC adaptation of Austen’s 1817 novel, "Northanger Abbey".
Adapted by Maggie Wadey, "NORTHANGER ABBEY" follows the experiences of seventeen-year-old Gothic novel aficionado, Catherine Morland, who is invited by her parents’ friends, Mr. and Mrs. Allen, to accompany them on a visit to Bath, England. This is Catherine’s first visit to Bath and there she makes new acquaintances such as Isabella Thorpe and the latter’s crude brother, John. She also becomes friends with the charming and quick-witted clergyman Henry Tilney and his sweet-tempered sister, Eleanor. While Catherine’s brother James courts Isabella, she finds herself becoming the romantic target of the ill-mannered John. Fortunately for Catherine, she becomes romantically captivated by Henry Tilney, who seemed to have fallen for her, as well . . . much to the displeasure of the Thorpes. Eventually, Henry and Eleanor’s father, General Tilney, invites Catherine to visit their estate, Northanger Abbey. Because of her penchant for Ann Radcliffe's gothic novel, "The Mysteries of Udolpho", Catherine expects the Tilney estate to be filled with Gothic horrors and family mysteries. Instead, Catherine ends up learning a few lessons about life.
Personally, I do not consider the 1817 novel to be one of Austen’s best. It has always seemed . . . not fully complete to me. I never understood why the Thorpes actually believed that the Morlands were wealthy, considering John’s longer acquaintance with Catherine’s brother, James. And why did John tell General Tilney that Cathrine’s family was wealthy in the first place? For revenge? His actions only encouraged the general to invite Catherine to Northanger Abbey. But I digress. This article is not a criticism of Austen’s novel, but my view on this first movie adaptation. And how do I feel about "NORTHANGER ABBEY"? Well . . . it was interesting.
There are aspects of "NORTHANGER ABBEY" that I liked. First of all, director Giles Foster had a first rate cast to work with. I cannot deny that the movie featured some top-notch and solid performances. Both Katharine Schlesinger and Peter Firth gave first-rate performances as the two leads, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. Now, I realize that many Austen fans had a problem with Firth’s characterization of Henry. And they are not alone. But I cannot deny that he did a great job with the material given to him. Best of all, not only did Schlesinger and Firth have great screen chemistry, but also exchanged one of the best kisses I have ever seen in an Austen adaptation. But if I must be honest, there was not a performance that failed to impress me. The entire cast were excellent, especially Robert Hardy as Henry’s perfidious father, General Tilney; Cassie Stuart as Isabella Thorpe; Ingrid Lacey as Eleanor Tilney; and Jonathan Coy as the vulgar John Thorpe.
Watching "NORTHANGER ABBEY", it occurred to me that its production values were superb. Truly. I noticed that the movie seemed to be set in the late 1790s – the period in which Austen first wrote the novel, instead of the late Regency era (when it was officially published). Cecilia Brereton really did justice in re-creating Bath in the late 1790s. My two favorite scenes – from an ascetic point-of-view – featured Catherine’s meetings with the Thorpes and Eleanor Tilney at the city’s Roman Baths; and the two assembly balls. Nicholas Rocker did a superb job in designing the movie’s colorful costumes. In fact, I adored them. The costumes, the hairstyles and even the makeup designed by Joan Stribling beautifully reflected the movie’s setting.
Now that I have waxed lyrical over "NORTHANGER ABBEY", it is time for me to tear it down. Despite some of the movie’s more positive aspects, I can honestly say that I do not like this film. I almost dislike it. There were too much about it that turned me off. Surprisingly, one of those aspects was the characterization of Henry Tilney. The novel had hinted a witty and playful man with a wicked sense of humor. The sense of humor remained, but Henry’s condescending manner toward Catherine and penchant for lectures really turned me off. I cannot blame Peter Firth. I do blame Maggie Wadey for transforming Henry from a man with a wicked sense of humor, to a slightly humorous, yet ponderous character. And why did Wadey transform the vulgar John Thorpe into a borderline stalker? Honestly, the way he eyed Catherine whenever Henry was in her midst made me believe he would be a first-class serial killer. I also believe that Wadey went too far in her characterization of General Tilney. Instead of being a stern and rigid tyrant, the general became an aging and mercenary Lothario, whose dissipation depleted the family’s income. Artistic close-ups of Robert Hardy’s face wearing a salacious expression did not help matters. To reinforce General Tilney’s dissipation, Wadey included a character called the Marchioness, an aristocratic refugee of the French Revolution who has become his mistress. Personally, I found her addition to the cast of characters to be irrelevant.
And the problems continued to roll. The main house of the Tilneys’ estate is supposed to be an abbey, not a castle. Why on earth did the production designer and the producers choose Bodiam Castle as the location for the fictional Northanger Abbey? The scenes featuring Catherine’s vivid and "Gothic" imagination struck me as unnecessarily long and rather off-putting. I felt as if I had stumbled across a horror movie, instead of a Jane Austen adaptation. Also, Catherine’s friendship with Isabella seemed to have been given the short-shrift. Quite frankly, I do not think it was developed very well. Wadey had a chance to clean up some of the flaws in Austen’s novel – namely the Thorpes’ interest in Catherine and the trick that John Thorpe played on General Tilney about the Morelands’ wealth or lack of it. And why did Wadey include that minor sequence featuring the Tilneys’ young black slave? All the kid did was lure Catherine outside to the estate’s lawn in order to impress her with his gymnastic skills. And for what? I am trying to think of a witty comment to express my contempt for this scene. All I can do is shake my head and wonder what the hell was Wadey thinking.
Who was responsible for hiring Ilona Sekacz to compose the movie’s score? I wish I could compliment Ms. Sekacz’s work. I would if it had served as the score for an episode of "MIAMI VICE", a soft porn movie, or some other television series or movie from the 1980s. Sofia Coppola used early 1980s pop music to serve as the score for her 2006 movie, "MARIE ANTOINETTE". Surprisingly, it worked. I think it worked because Coppola utilized the right song for the right scene. But Sekacz’s score, which featured a strange mixture of new age and period music, night club jazz, and synthesizers, was never utilized properly. Or perhaps I simply found the music too strange or off-putting for me to appreciate it. It certainly did not blend well with the actual movie released on American and British television.
"NORTHANGER ABBEY" has some aspects that prevents me to viewing it as a total write-off. It does feature some first-rate performances – especially from leads Katharine Schlesinger and Peter Firth – and I adore both Cecilia Brereton’s production designs and Nicholas Rocker’s costumes. But the movie has too many flaws, including an unpalatable score and some very questionable characterizations, for me to consider it a first-class, let alone a decent adaptation of Austen’s novel. This is one movie that I will not be watching with any regularity.