My Year with Jane Austen: “Northanger Abbey” [2007]

Movie: “Northanger Abbey”

Release Year: 2007

Actors: Catherine Morland – Felicity Jones

Mr. Tilney – JJ Field

Isabella Thorpe – Carey Mulligan

John Thorpe – William Beck

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

I really like this adaptation of “Northanger Abbey.” To be fair, I haven’t seen any others, so there isn’t much of a comparison to be had. But in comparison to the book itself, I feel like it hits all the right points. The characters are all perfectly cast. The tone is just right, landing somewhere happily between romance and comedy. And it manages to use a clever device of dream sequences to capture Austen’s satiric intent with Catherine’s preoccupation with gothic novels and the fanciful thoughts they can bring about.

The dream sequences are probably the most notable point out of those three. They’re handily sprinkled throughout the movie, so from the very beginning, we have a clear idea of Catherine’s own head space. The movie also cleverly uses the same actors in many of the fanciful imagings, highlighting how Catherine herself is casting those around her. Henry, of course gets to be the hero, while John Thorpe and Captain Tilney are villains. Isabella, before Catherine wakes up to her true character, is a helpless victim of Captain Tilney’s.

There are a few bigger changes towards the end of the movie with the order of operations between Henry discovering Catherine’s suspicions about his family and her being turned out of the house. It does lose some of the gallantry of Henry, but probably makes for a more dramatic move overall. The audience, like Catherine, is left in suspense of his thoughts and feelings. And, what’s more, we’re given a red herring explanation for why she is suddenly thrown out by General Tilney.

The movie also makes good use of the narrator. The voice, meant to be Jane Austen I believe, only really picks up at the beginning and the ending of the movie. But it does a nice job of bookending the story and, again, giving it that meta sense that the book itself had with regards to stories: stories talking about stories, heroines inspiring heroines, and so on.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

Felicity Jones is pitch perfect for Catherine. She’s an excellent balance of youthful naivete and earnest goodwill. Catherine could easily come across as silly, what with her dramatic and rather silly mental dramas. But Jones manages to reign that in, leaving Catherine seeming simply young, but at her heart, good-natured. Her wide-eyed depiction of the character also makes it easy to understand why Catherine is so easily forgiven and taken in by the more level-headed characters around her.

She also does a good job portraying the balancing act that Catherine undertakes initially, between the silly vivacity that her first friends, the Thorpes, are encouraging, and her own wishes to be esteemed by the more polished Tilney siblings. At the same time, Jones’ Catherine is never overshadowed by the larger-than-life characters around her, and she has excellent chemistry with JJ Field.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

For his part, JJ Field also fits the role of Henry Tilney perfectly. He’s affable, charming, and wholesome. As I mentioned in my review of the book, Tilney stands out as the most approachable and easy of all of Austen’s main heroes. He doesn’t have any angst to speak of and his road to romance is the most straight forward. Field has great delivery with many of the Tilney’s comedic lines, teasing Catherine and being teased back himself. There’s a joyousness to his portrayal that is very appealing.

Of course, he also has a bit harder of a sell towards the end, in that unlike the book, he’s not given the chance to fulfill Tilney’s most romantic overture: the immediate forgiveness of Catherine for her silliness and all the effort put out afterwards to make her feel secure again. Instead, he has to do all the lifting in the final scene that includes the explanation of his father’s behavior, his feelings towards Catherine despite her imaginings, and the proposal itself. It’s all handled neatly, and I think is a testament to all the goodwill that has already been built up for the character. Even if we don’t see him immediately forgive Catherine, it’s easy to believe that that was the case. He even admits that his own teasing of Catherine early on, mentioning a certain sort of vampirism at Northanger Abbey, makes him at least partly responsible for her wild theories.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

The villainous characters are all also well-cast. We can see the appeal of Isabella to Catherine, but the viewer is never quite as taken in as she is. Isabella’s obvious disappointment in the lack of wealthy coming her way through her engagement to James is pretty telling. And from there, it’s just a skip and a hop to talking to Catherine about how Captain Tilney is the heir of the family. Of course, the movie goes a much more dire route with this entire affair, having Captain Tilney actually seduce Isabella into his bed, a much bigger transgression than the book presents.

The book does hint that he must have given Isabella some strong signals for her to give up her engagement in pursuit of him, but I don’t think it really meant that things had went as far as the movie portrays. For one thing, it makes Captain Tilney into quite the villain himself. In the book, he’s fairly disagreeable and obviously pursues Isabella inappropriately. We know he means to marry well. But that’s about it. Here, he’s cast with characters such as Wickham and Willoughby, the blackest scoundrels of Austen’s villains, in following their footsteps in ruining young women.

General Tilney is also presented in a fairly foreboding light from the start. The book does a lot of work talking about how thickly he lays on the charm for Catherine, but how oppressive his presence still is overall. That comes through very clear here, it perhaps not too clear. He’s fairly off-putting from the very beginning, and the few lines he gets hint fairly heavily to his confusion about Catherine’s coming wealth from the Allens. The movie is even more strict with his comeuppance, however, as it does away with the bargaining aspect of Eleanor Tilney’s engagement. Instead, it implies that both Eleanor and Henry marry against their father’s wishes leaving him lonely and angry at the gloomy Northanger Abbey.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

The romance is also very sweet in this movie. Like I said early, the chemistry between Jones and Fields is great, making all the flirty dialogue ring true and their mutual teasing is very cute. I like the effort that is put into building this relationship, not only at Bath but at Northanger Abbey itself. There, we see Henry and Catherine going on walks, with Catherine quizzing him on his feelings about marrying not to great wealth. There are also nice smaller moments of them and Eleanor roasting food by the fire. The movie also replaces the entire family’s visit to Henry’s estate with a horseback ride taken by just Henry and Catherine.

I also really like the final scene with the proposal. Most of Austen’s other stories all are still attempting to resolve misunderstandings or greater dramas by the time the proposal comes along. So it’s often a bit more of a serious situation. Here, that’s not so much the case. Yes, there are misunderstandings that are cleared up. But here the entire thing is played with a much lighter feeling and the semi-awkward fumblings of two youngish people declaring their feelings for each other. The movie then goes straight into them having a baby to round out the story, which, from a modern perspective, feels very strange given said young-ness, but you know, such were the times.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

I really liked the comedy in this movie, too. Obviously, as I’ve mentioned, Tilney is the most comedic hero we see in Austen’s books, so it’s important that they hit that right with the casting and with the script. But they also did good work with the Allens, giving them almost more of a presence than they had in the book. We see less of Mrs. Allen’s insipidity, but she retains her preoccupation with clothes, even mentioning Tilney’s good eye for muslin and a recommendation for him still even after the bewildering events that lead to Catherine’s being sent home alone.

John Thorpe is also pretty funny in just how intolerable he is. He perfectly captures the brash, loud, uncouth character that Austen describes. And his attempts at hinting around to Catherine about a second wedding after the engagement between Isabella and James is pretty funny. It’s clear to the audience what is happing, but Catherine is so obviously clueless, and even John doesn’t seem to really want to clue her in on what he’s getting at.

I think one of the funniest little bits comes towards the very end of the movie. Henry Tilney is visiting the Morlands and suggests Catherine show him the way to the Allens’ so he can pay his respects. And then one of the younger sisters points out that you can see their house from the window before being quickly cut-off by her mother, who knows what’s what. The actress who plays Mrs. Morland doesn’t have tons of screen time, but she nails this little moment, and it’s pretty funny.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

There weren’t too many fun facts that I could find, other than costume-related things. But the one costume thing did stand out: that Mr. Tilney wears the same green coat and tan pants as Mr. Darcy does in the 1995 film.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

Just some good, ole reaction comedy here:

I also like this one:

In two weeks, I’ll review the first half of “Persuasion.”

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