Monday, 24 February 2014

Northanger Abbey (Bad) & Persuasion (Good)

I've recently been catching up on some of the more recent TV adaptations of Jane Austen's classic novels. In 2007 ITV produced three new adaptations as part of their Jane Austen Season; Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. I've reviewed all bar the first one - because I can't bring myself to watch Billie Piper try and play Austen's heroine Fanny Price!

The season was on the whole largely underwhelming as I didn't like Northanger Abbey either, but it's worth it all in the end with a wonderful adaptation of Persuasion, which I highly recommend.

I'm not a big fan of Northanger Abbey, one of Austen's lesser works; a parody on the Gothic novel and a moral tale warning those who enjoy such fiction and have vivid imaginations to not go looking for mystery where none is to be found, it's just too frivolous and pat even by her wonderfully escapist standards. As such I therefore cannot be too enamoured by adaptations of the novel either, and that sadly includes this 2007 effort from ITV and the pen of Andrew Davies, who had previously adapted Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

The plus points to this adaptation are the impeccable turns from the gorgeous Felicity Jones (marry me already) as our heroine Catherine and, as the self serving Isabella, the then star in the making Carey Mulligan, whose corset alone was worthy of a best supporting actress award so eye popping is her cleavage in several scenes. There is also a fine comedic turn from Sylvestra Le Touzel - who had previously played Austen's heroine Fanny Price in the superior 1983 BBC adaptation of Mansfield Park (let us not mention ITV's 2007 version with a miscast Billie Piper!) - cast here as Mrs Allen, Catherine's aunt who takes her to Bath.

The downside is JJ Field, an actor whom I normally admire, but feel is somewhat miscast here as Henry Tilney and, as his father, the normally equally fine Liam Cunnigham who is saddled with a ridiculous wig. Neither am I keen on the inclusion of Catherine's fantasies into the bodice ripping Gothic realm. I know Davies often comes in for some unfair flak because of his attempts at 'sexing up' the classics he adapts but, whilst I think the allusions to sex and adventure seen here through her daydreams are perhaps more appropriate than some may consider, I can't help but feel the overall effect smacks of 'Carry On Northanger Abbey'

Overall, a middling effort.

Yes it's not as faithful as some adaptations (specifically the very good 1995 BBC version with Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds) but even when it deviates I feel it's heart remains in the right place. This is an utterly beautiful and superbly played adaptation and as such is a joy to watch.

I must admit I had reservations as I intensely dislike Ruper Penry-Ponce, sorry I mean Penry-Jones. I know, I'm not a girl, so obviously I don't get the appeal, but I've only ever liked him in two things; Cambridge Spies (in which his Donald Maclean was the weakest of the quartet) and Silk (a drama whose third series starts on BBC1 tonight and in which RPJ plays a posh prat, which makes him perfect for the role, and constantly in the shade of the divine Maxine Peake) I must admit however his Wentworth is perfectly acceptable and I would hazard a guess is sufficiently smouldering enough to get the female viewers weak at the knees.

Far better is the wonderful Sally Hawkins. I've yet to see her give a poor performance and her central one here as Anne Elliot is no exception. She is, to me, Anne to a tee and I really bought her sense of solitude and regret depicted almost candidly with those confessional looks direct to camera and in turn, us the audience. 

The supporting cast are quite a treasure with comedian Julia Davis being given a run for her money by the comic playing of more 'straight' actors such as Anthony Head, Sam Hazeldine and Amanda Hale. There is also Joseph Mawle, Alice Krige and  Tobias Menzies, as well as Peter Wight and Marion Bailey (who alongside Hawkins makes for three Mike Leigh alumni in the cast) though it's a bit of a shame that, via abridging and focus on key aspects of the story, some characterisation gets lost.  

Beautifully directed by Adrian Shergold and photographed by David Odd, this is a sumptuous and satisfying Austen tale which I would happily place alongside the 1995 version and is thankfully far superior to the previous ITV adaptations in this season, namely Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey.

Overall, a fab effort.

(Images found on Fanpop, with thanks)

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