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Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Review: 'Northanger Abbey' a better effort for 'Masterpiece' series

Review: 'Northanger Abbey' a better effort for 'Masterpiece' series
David Wiegand, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008

If any of Jane Austen's novels could be acceptably adapted for a 90-minute film, "Northanger Abbey" is probably the best candidate. After an unfortunate launch of its three-month Jane Austen series with Sunday's "Persuasion," PBS redeems itself with a nicely pitched version of the author's first completed novel as part of "Masterpiece" on Sunday night.

"Northanger" is interesting in part because, in addition to being an amusing send-up of Gothic romance novels, it is a sketchbook for the plots and characters that would come to full bloom in Austen's later novels. There is, of course, a young, somewhat plain heroine who is pursued by a perfectly pleasant but bland chap, while her heart flutters for a more aloof man. And, of course, there is the theme of money versus sincerity, character and true love.

But "Northanger" also has its own charms, slight though they may be in comparison with Austen's later masterpieces. Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) is a young woman with a vivid imagination and a young girl's fondness for Gothic romances. The daughter of a country clergyman, she is dispatched to provide company for wealthy family friends the Allens (Desmond Barrit and Sylvestra Le Touzel) during the social season in Bath. Catherine meets the Thorpe siblings, Isabella (Carey Mulligan), who is already smitten by Catherine's older brother, and John (William Beck), who quickly develops a crush on Catherine.

For her part, however, Catherine is already half in love with brooding Henry Tilney (JJ Feild), whose overbearing father, Gen. Tilney (Liam Cunningham), encourages the romance because he thinks Catherine will receive a large fortune from the Allens.

Money and love are, of course, at constant odds in "Northanger Abbey." Henry's sister Eleanor (Catherine Walker) is in love with a young man who, unfortunately, is the second son in the family and, thus, not slated to receive much of an inheritance. Accordingly, the general has forbidden the marriage. And Henry's character, like many Austen "heroes," is ambiguous. While he seems genuinely charmed by Catherine, he does allow that the best thing he could do would be to fall in love with a girl who comes with a large dowry. While the complexities of this character type would be more credibly explored by Austen in later figures such as "Persuasion's" Capt. Wentworth, and, of course, Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice," we can, again, see their beginnings in Henry Tilney.

While later Austen heroines would show a bit more sophistication, Catherine often comes off as a more than just a little naive. Her fondness for Gothic romances has led her to imagine that highwaymen are going to overtake her carriage on the way to Bath at any moment. That notion can be easily dismissed as the musings of a silly schoolgirl, but later, while staying at Northanger Abbey with the Tilneys, she endangers her relationship with Henry by conjuring up the idea that his father may, in fact, have murdered his wife. At various points in the "Masterpiece" film, Catherine's imaginings are dramatized as part of the action. In fact, the first time it happens, you'll probably believe that her carriage really is being overtaken by highwaymen. While the scenes may seem silly, they correctly represent Austen's gentle satire of this overheated genre. In fact, there's a running debate in the story about whether it is in fact dangerous to read too many novels.

While "Persuasion" is a bigger challenge to try to squeeze into 90 minutes, the real difference between that film and "Northanger" is the latter's consistency of high-quality performances, a careful and attentive adaptation by Andrew Davies and solid direction by Jon Jones. Jones is quite winning as Catherine, although she does seem a bit too young to know whether she's actually in love or not. That's fine for the earlier scenes, but it becomes a bit of a stretch when Tilney is actively courting her.

As an aside, let it be known that in its finite wisdom, PBS has decided to truncate the name of its Sunday night warhorse from "Masterpiece Theatre" to "Masterpiece." In a similar vein, no doubt we can expect future PBS offerings such as "Myst," "Live From Linc," "Great Perf" and, for the kids, "Cliff the Big."

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