Friday, March 23, 2018

Reviewing Jane: Oh! Who Can Ever Be Tired Of Bath?

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 1987
Director: Giles Foster
Cast: Katharine Schlesinger, Peter Firth, Robert Hardy 
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes 

Did you think I could leave you with just one adaptation of Jane Austen's first novel Northanger Abbey? No, this marathon is moving thirty years backward and hopping the channels to hit the 1987 BBC production of the very same story. You'd think things would be pretty much the same, but you would be so, so wrong.

For one thing, the hats are even more out of control.

Once again, as though we're caught in a Groundhog Day time loop, we see young novel-obsessed Catherine Morland (Katharine Schlesinger who, weirdly, played the title character in the miniseries of The Diary of Anne Frank) get invited to spend some weeks in the town of bath with her affluent neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Allen (Geoffrey Chater and the incomparably named Googie Withers). In spite of the lust of John Thorpe (Jonathan Coy of that other abbey, known as Downton) and the attentions of his sister Isabella (Cassie Stuart), who is pursuing Catherine's brother James (Philip Bird), she falls in love with Henry Tilney (Peter Firth, no relation to that other Austen paramour).

During a stay at Tilney's family home at Northanger Abbey, she learns that his father (Robert Hardy, who played Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies, but unsurprisingly also appeared in Sense and Sensibility, because there's always gotta be an Austen crossover) is a cruel tyrant who rules over his children with an iron fist. How can they possibly get married now?

And - more importantly - why would she WANT to marry this man who looks like a melting wax figure of Ed Sheeran?

The thing that's perhaps most striking about this iteration of Northanger Abbey is just how 80's the whole thing is. Considering that it's a period piece set in Regency England, I figured nothing but the film stock would betray it as thirty years apart from the Felicity Jones version, but I was sorely incorrect in that assumption. For huge swaths of this movie, it's basically a Bonnie Tyler video, complete with flowing nightgowns, a few cubic acres of smoke, and electric guitars rattling around on the soundtrack. 

Now, I know I just made this movie sound awesome, but don't be fooled. I love any artifacts from the 80's, especially if they're incongruously sneaking into a Jane Austen tale (the fluffy mullet that threatens to devour Catherine's younger brother's head and the sexy saxophone music that accompanies a lakeside stroll are both just as bizarre and delightful), but they're not present in nearly high enough quantities to prevent this from being anything other than a stuffy television drama made before the BBC got cool.

Maybe I'm just impossible to please, but whereas the 2007 version was much too sexed-up and ribald, this version is so stiff and genteel that even an Austen character would think it was putting on airs. The high humor of the novel is completely lost on the filmmakers here, who reimagine the story as a stone-faced drama, save for one clever line from Mr. Tilney himself. But if you strip Northanger of its humor, you steal away everything that made it special, for there certainly isn't a plot worth a damn anywhere to be found.

Literally the entire conflict of the first volume is whether or not Catherine is going to go on a walk.

And the trouble is, they don't really even seem to be trying to find anything worth exploring in the narrative machinations. Even though this version of Northanger does find a way to incorporate Catherine's fantasies into the third act in a way that actually drives the plot, it still completely fails to set up and pay off the central dramatic setpiece of the second volume, in which Catherine discovers a stack of receipts in the back of a wardrobe (it's riveting stuff on paper, I promise).

It certainly doesn't help that the two lovers here are epically ill-matched. Tilney, as I have previously observed, isn't exactly a dreamboat, and Katharine Schlesinger seems to have decided to draw on Pamela Springsteen from the Sleepaway Camp sequels as her acting inspiration. She shrieks every line with her eyes bugged out as wide as humanly possible. This romance between what is essentially a minor Fraggle Rock character and a block of wood isn't the stuff of legend, nosireebob. Their leaden flirtations form empty pockets of air that fill the movie with shovelfuls of passionless nothing.

In general, the acting is even worse than the 2007 film (I take back every mean thing I said about Felicity Jones, whose clumsy grip on the character at least means she has her hands on it at all). Only Googie Withers makes something more of her character than her 2007 counterpart. She's actually quite delightful, because she actually understands the ironies of the shallow busybody character as written.

All hail Googie Withers and her impressive ability not to have her neck snap under the weight of all that nonsense on her head.

The only elements that are actually intriguing (other than the costume and set design, which is pretty commendable across the board) are the ones that actively break the movie from its reverie, like the Bonnie Tyler music video moments or the dream sequence where Mrs. Allen shoves a needle through her finger! Seriously, the f**k?! Northanger Abbey takes some intensely weird detours on the way to the conclusion of its run-of-the-mill literary TV movie.

And I haven't even mentioned the French aristocrat lady's little African servant who forces Catherine to watch him to cartwheels on the Northanger lawn. Nor should I, because it has nothing to do with anything, but I'll always take a little dash of weird to liven up an occasion.

OK, let's be nice for a second. Visually, there's more at play here than the 2007 film, and the director actually seems to wake up from time to time. I loved a moment that cross-cuts between a conversation about General Tilney and the man himself spinning a coin in an imposing shot that belies his power over everything in his home. And a metaphor involving a canary is a little blunt, but at least it's something.

A straight-faced Northanger is something that exactly nobody needed, but at least there's enough going on along the fringes that it doesn't make you long for the more extravagant pleasures of the Regency era, like playing cards for eight hours, staring at a fire, or falling deathly ill for a couple weeks.

TL;DR: Northanger Abbey is a humorless, arid approach to one of Jane Austen's least consequential novels.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1143
Other Films Based on Northanger Abbey
Northanger Abbey (Foster, 1987)
Ruby in Paradise (Nunez, 1993)
Northanger Abbey (Jones, 2007)

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