Northanger Abbey: screen versions of Jane Austen’s novel

There are two films of Northanger Abbey available on DVD. One stars Felicity Jones (a ravishing Miranda in the Helen Mirren Tempest) as Catherine Morland and JJ Field as Henry Tilney, and is directed by Jon Jones for ITV in 2007 with a screenplay by Andrew Davies. The other is a 1987 BBC production directed by Giles Foster ( a remarkable career including TV movies of Adam Bede and Silas Marner and, more recently Bertie and Elizabeth and two of the more successful episodes of Foyle’s War), with Katherine Schlesinger (Young Catherine) as Catherine and Peter Firth as Henry Tilney.
They are both more faithful to the novel than most of the other films of Jane Austen’s novels, both run for much the same time (about 90 minutes) and both cover all the salient parts of the story. Catherine is invited to accompany her neighbours, the childless Mr and Mrs Allen, to Bath, for, as Jane Austen wrote, if adventures will not befal a young lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad. Both films show some scenes from Catherine’s imagination of the gothic novels she has been reading, both mildly erotic, perhaps the ITV version more so, as we have come to expect from an Andrew Davies script. Catherine meets Henry Tinley, and is invited by Henry’s cold and tyrannous father, General Tilney, to accompany them to Northanger Abbey. Henry and his sister Elinor are surprised: they cannot understand why their father, usually so ambitious for connection with wealth and title, should actively seek the company of such a poor young woman, however charming brother and sister find her.
Catherine goes to Northanger, learns about the circumstances of the death of Henry’s mother, and her feverish imagination leads her to speculate that Henry’s father may have neglected his wife when she became ill, or, even worse, been complicit in her death. Catherine’s naivety allows her to reveal these suspicions to Henry Tilney. In the novel, Jane Austen allows Henry to put her right, assure her that there was no neglect, that he was at home during her illness, and Henry comforts Catherine. In the ITV film, Henry is angry with her, rebukes her, and leaves her thinking that she has lost his regard, a more likely outcome. Jane Austen was too kind. In the BBC film, Henry is kinder, but not much. However, loss of Henry’s regard is nothing: Catherine is banished from Northanger Abbey, not because of her suspicions, of which the General never becomes aware, but because he belatedly learns that she is poor. He has been assured previously that she was to inherit from Mr Allen, with whom she has been staying at Bath. However, we can see in the novel from the tell-tale compression of the pages, in Jane Austen’s words, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity, and Henry’s arrival at the Moreland’s home to secure Catherine as his wife is one of the most charming episodes in the entire book, set as it is in the home made happy by the contentment of Catherine’s father and mother with their lot, despite the poverty of a poor country clergyman, and the ITV version does full justice to this.
There is a remarkable performance by Cary Mulligan of the scheming, heartless, Isabella Thorpe, who becomes engaged to Catherine’s brother, but turns her attention to the equally heartless Captain Tilney, Henry’s brother, for whom she is no match. It is pleasing to see this demonstration of Cary Mulligan’s ability, to flower so soon in An Education, Never Let Me Go and Shame. But Cassie Stuart, in the BBC version, does well, portraying a sillier woman than Cary Mulligan. General Tilney, in the ITV version, is played by Liam Cunningham, and the viewer has no doubt. He is a bad man. In the BBC version, General Tilney is played by Robert Hardy, and he struggles to be the bad man. Robert Hardy is embedded in the nation’s affection as a nice man, bumbling, but nice. In Sense and Sensibility, he is Sir John Middleton, more concerned about Marianne’s lover’s dogs than whether Marianne’s lover is worthy of her. In Middlemarch, he is Arthur Brooke, a straightforward, caring man; in Elizabeth R he is Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and, above all, there he is in All Creatures Great and Small. The mask of the bad man, as portrayed by Robert Hardy, slips in Northanger Abbey.
The final scenes in the BBC version are not as successful as in the ITV version. Henry Tilney arrives, he kisses Catherine, and that is that. The explanations, the resolution are missing.


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