Huzzah! - another adaptation: for Austen fans there can never be enough. Still
I gulped a little when I heard that ITV were doing a Jane Austen season. ITV tend to drastically abridge their period dramas, and they can end up slightly cheap-looking, losing integrity when contrasted with the more solid and sober (and timeless?) productions of the BBC.
Northanger Abbey was Austen's first proper novel, but her last to be published; very much a turn of the (19th) century novel, showing some of the roughness of that time, before ladies became entirely encased in the strict rules society saw fit to impose. It's fitting that a cheeky, confident and funny writer (Andrew Davies) gets to have a bit of fun with this one some 200 years later. In it, Catherine Morland, a young, naïve girl from a quiet village, gets her first taste of many things on a trip to Bath, and learns both life lessons and something about love through her contact with two very different families she meets there; the grasping, manipulative Thorpes and the thoughtful and sophisticated Tilneys.
The two leads, Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland, and J J Field as Henry Tilney, are beautifully cast. Felicity Jones' youth, pretty looks and inexperience served her character very well. Her 'modern' tone has been criticised, but whilst an older actress might have delivered the lines with greater accuracy, we'd have lost Jones' juvenile wonder and humour. She delivered (almost all) her lines nicely, and although at moments she looked almost simple, staring up blankly with her mouth open, in a way this was appropriate. Nothing in Catherine Morland's previous limited experience prepared her for the life of Bath or for a family like the Tilneys – she may well gape. I loved the dream sequences where her constant absorption in Gothic horrors spills over into her imagination: her reading was teaching her to look for horror everywhere.
J J Field was wonderful in the BBC's recent adaptation of Philip Pullman's excellent "The Ruby in the Smoke", and shows again that he can play the leading man with great charm and naturalistic ease - a long career in the making I think. Re-reading the book I'm struck by the affectionate details with which Austen made Henry Tilney lovable, such as his messy rooms and his keen sense of humour. I think Field goes a long way towards putting this on screen, despite shockingly ill-fitting clothes and a script very constrained for time, missing dialogue which would have drawn out his growing attachment to Catherine. Austen has Henry tell Catherine that she "is superior in good nature to all the world". In this version her youth and looks alone seem to be the reason for her appeal.
The minor characters were mostly well-played and well drawn; especially Eleanor Tilney, who brought great dignity to her role. Some concessions have certainly been made to an audience deemed incapable of reading subtlety or of tolerating lengthy or literary dialogue. But certain additions were really funny and delightful: Catherine rolling her eyes and curling her lip at Captain Tilney's rudeness; her little sister announcing, hand on hips and with a nice swing of her little head; "CATHY. Mama says will you bring Mr Tilney to the DRAWING room." Her withering glare at Henry when they are all seated, in awkward silence, is genius: go girl.
Adaptations don't need to be slavish. The BBC's rather lurid 1986 version took just as many liberties, and more than warranted a revisit. Overall I found this a delightful adaptation, delivered with verve and spirit, so well done ITV, please, more of this, less of the abridged and dumbed-down rubbish!