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Northanger Abbey
cast: Felicity Jones, Carey Mulligan, Liam Cunningham, William Beck, and J.J. Field

director: Jon Jones

120 minutes (PG) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
ITV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
With the 'Darcy effect' following BBC's 1995 Pride And Prejudice, Jane Austen, long the staple of TV's classic serial, hit a new vogue; Jane was hip, Jane was sexy, this was chick-lit with attitude and hey, it really was lit!

We did Persuasion for A-level, and while we sat, gnawing through our own limbs at the fluttery indecision and bad life-choices of Miss Eliot, our English teacher pleaded with us to believe that it was satire, the divine Miss A was being funny; imagine her if you will dear reader sashaying onstage in her Empire line frock, she seizes the mic and says, 'Hey have you noticed how a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife?' Some years later in a post party fugue I mentioned to some slip of a girl, who had just completed her own A levels, that we had been encouraged to view Jane Austen in this light, satire yes? 'But it isn't!' she said with intensity, before going to sit on our host.

Broadcast as part of ITV's Jane Austen season, this is a slight-ish work; Austen's first completed novel, but only published posthumously along with Persuasion. Here the author takes a pot at the fad for Gothic novels. This is also a slight-ish adaptation; so consider the surprise to discover it is by the king of adapters Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones, The Line Of Beauty).

Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones, The Worst Witch) is a young woman blossoming into attractiveness, but with a fantasy life fuelled by the Gothic romances she reads in her spare time. In a lazy touch her fantasies are projected on screen for the viewer, so we are forever seeing her menaced in rustic settings, to which she responds by adopting a rather depraved smirk, before awaking in a tousled post-crisis state to snap at her siblings.

Family friends the Allens whisk Catherine off to Bath, and at a sort of tea-dance at the Rooms, Catherine is leered at by a young man, and meets Henry Tilney (J.J. Field, The Ruby In The Smoke) who teases and charms her. The crush of polite society socialising is cleverly satirised here, and the social void of not being able to speak to anyone prior to a formal introduction. Tilney having breached etiquette by conversing with Catherine and Mrs Allen (Sylvestra Le Touzel, Amazing Grace), must then go off and get the Master of Ceremonies to make things 'proper'.

Catherine meets Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan, 2005's Pride And Prejudice, Doctor Who: Blink) who makes a pitch for her brother James, Isabella's own brother Jonathan makes a play for Catherine in his turn. The Thorpes are full of Gothic romance too, and Isabella whispers into Catherine's ear what the mad, bad, Lord Byron is supposed to have done, Catherine's mouth makes a perfect oh of shock but she does not yell out 'What! Sodomised his cousin?' to outrage the good people of Bath. The two girls become fast friends, lounging around in their underwear; Isabella balancing her breasts like Galia melons wonders what the boys would think if they could see them now. There are lines in the script that one cannot imagine hardcore Janeites accepting, Jonathan Thorpe (William Beck, Robin Hood) describes the Gothic shocker 'The Monk' as "hot stuff," and suggesting another dance asks if they should "jig it again."

Catherine is reunited with Tilney, and his sister Eleanor, and meets their father the dour General Tilney (Liam Cunningham, Dog Soldiers, The Wind That Shakes The Barley), when the latter is informed by the scheming Jonathan that Catherine is Mr Allen's heiress, an invitation is extended to her to visit with them at Northanger Abbey. Inevitably all does not go well, Catherine allows rumours about the General, and her own super-heated imagination, to overcome her common sense, and there will be tears before bedtime until a rather unseemly dash for the end credits sees everything put right.

This adaptation is good at throwing into relief the underlying ill at the heart of this ever-so-polite society. What goes on is a kind of desperate procurement, where relatives and family friends pimp young females to eligible bachelors or else, the twist in Northanger Abbey, predatory males stalk young ladies who may prove to have a fortune.

The good-looking, and relatively youthful and inexperienced, cast perform well; Felicity Jones is a bonny lass while not conforming to any set notions of beauty, which makes her very attractive indeed, one can just about forgive her habit of 'acting' emotions by gazing at people with her mouth open. Carey Mulligan makes a pert flirt; her performance in the Doctor Who episode Blink was outstanding, which makes the decision to have her play some scenes in Northanger Abbey with her very pretty bosom up under her chin rather exploitative.

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