Part V: Northanger Abbey, cont’d.
I’ve just finished watching NA86. I’d never seen it before, so I went into it with absolutely no preconceived notions. This column is very stream-of-consciousness, but there was so much to comment on that it seemed to me to be the best way to write about it.
It stars Peter Firth as Henry, Katharine Schlesinger as Catherine, Robert Hardy as General Tilney and Googie Withers as Mrs. Allen. I have not heard of a single other member of the cast. I have never heard of Katharine Schlesinger either but, since she does play the heroine, I had to list her. Apparently, there are a lot of people who have never heard of Katharine Schlesinger — her IMDb page is very skimpy and, except for having played Catherine Morland here and Anne Frank in a dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank, she has not played anything but extras, and even then she’s only been in a handful of productions. The script was written by Maggie Wadey, who wrote the less-than-inspiring MP07. Perhaps I’m prejudiced by this, but now I’m not expecting much. I own a copy of it, but it is in storage so I had to rent this one from Netflix.
The film starts off with Catherine reading one of her “horrid” novels while sitting up in a tree. One of her younger siblings (a boy named Edward whose wig makes him look like a girl and which almost makes MP83’s Mr. Yates look good) calls her into the house to see the Allens. These Allens are considerably older than I’d expected. A quick peek at Googie Withers’ bio at IMDb tells me that she was almost 70 during filming, with Geoffrey Chater as Mr. Allen being 4 years younger. When we consider that Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe are supposed to have been at school together and that Mrs. Thorpe has children in their teens, casting a woman who is perilously close to 70 as Mrs. Allen was probably not the best decision they could have made.
On the way to Bath, they pass right by Northanger Abbey. We know this because the driver tells us. That was weird. Just about as weird as the music, which I cannot say that I like at all. This Northanger Abbey is “played” by a castle. Castles and abbeys are not the same things. I’m thinking either the filmmakers didn’t know this, or they did and they thought we don’t.
One can see right away that NA86 has the same poor production values as the other 1980s adaptations we’ve talked about before, but I’m glad that they actually use Bath to play Bath. I was pleased to see that the real Pump Room and the real Royal Crescent appear in this adaptation and that they were not reproduced in a sound stage.
Enter Peter Firth. I love him as Harry Pearce in Spooks, but he looks just awful as Henry. He’s too often sweaty and pink-faced, a little creepy (especially when he looks at Catherine and sighs), and decidedly unappealing. He was 33 years old in 1986, several years too old for the character. And, speaking of decidedly unappealing, at least one of Catherine’s wigs in Bath is really awful.
The Thorpes are icky. Isabella is so obvious and slutty that I can’t understand how even an innocent like Catherine could be taken in by her. Her laugh is like fingernails on a blackboard. Jonathan Coy’s John is even worse than he is in the book. He makes my skin crawl. I get a very strong incest vibe between John and his sisters. And Elvi Hale (Mrs. Thorpe) was born in 1931, making her 14 years younger than a woman she supposedly went to school with.
We see several dream sequences that are also very creepy. Isabella shows up in Catherine’s bedroom when Catherine is still in her nightgown. And Isabella and James announce their engagement too early on in the story.
The scene at the baths is just weird. Besides the music, I have to think it’s just not right that men and women are in the baths at the same time.
They condensed the two different scenes where Catherine misses her outings with the Tilneys. It must be a time thing. But they could have skipped the weirdness at the baths.
When I read the book, I could never figure out what the Tilney siblings saw in Catherine. Yes, she’s a sweet girl, but she gives the reader the impression that she’s not very bright, and both Eleanor and Henry are far more interesting people. It’s not much different in this adaptation. They talk about Catherine as if she weren’t in the room, and at times Henry sounds more as if he’s laughing at her rather than with her.
I do like the dance scenes in this film better than most of the other earlier adaptations. The music is good here and the dances actually look choreographed. For example, one of my few quibbles about P&P80 is the dance scenes, but here they are quite well done.
On the way to Northanger Abbey, Henry tells Catherine that he has his own estate not too far away. So it turns out that Henry is not a clergyman. When we finally do get to the Abbey, it fulfills all of Catherine’s daydreams of the place, instead of being the more modern home Austen tells us it is. We see Catherine find the pieces of paper that are intriguing, but they turn out not to be mere laundry lists. They seem to have been written by someone who is planning an assignation.
We also get a scene where Catherine overhears Eleanor telling Henry that she can’t bear to live in that house anymore. I’m not sure where this came from either.
I don’t know if Peter Firth does his own singing, but all I can say is that, if he does do his own singing, he shouldn’t give up his day job. It’s terrible. I wanted to fast forward over that part, but I restrained myself.
They also make up a new character — the Marchioness of somethingorother, who is dressed in black from head to toe and who appears to be the General’s mistress. During the scene where Henry is singing badly, a little black boy dressed as a page takes Catherine by the hand and leads her outside, where he proceeds to do cartwheels on the lawn. Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.
Oh, it’s all a dream sequence. Obviously Henry’s singing got to Catherine, too.
And then we have a servant telling Catherine that General Tilney made his wife’s life “a perfect misery.” A loyal servant never would have said that, and no servant in the book did. The scene in Mrs. Tilney’s room when Catherine is snooping has more strange music, and something that sounded like sighing or heavy breathing. Again, very weird. Henry’s speech in Mrs. Tilney’s room sounds like a Shakespearean soliloquy. It doesn’t work for me at all.
And the weirdest part of all is when Eleanor tells Catherine that her family is not rich and that her father is an inveterate gambler who loses too often. Eleanor also tells Catherine about the man she is in love with, and then says that the notes in wardrobe in Catherine’s room are their notes where they arranged their assignations. It doesn’t make sense for those notes to be anything but what Austen says they are — laundry lists. Those laundry lists are part of Catherine’s realization that life isn’t exactly the same as one of her “horrid” books, and to change them into love notes is pointless.
We don’t get to see Catherine’s departure from Northanger. We find out in a scene between Henry and the General that the General never met up with John Thorpe a second time the way he does in the book; here it’s the Marchioness who tells the General that Catherine was not rich. One last thing about the General — he always sounds drunk. Was Robert Hardy trying to dull the pain of being in this disaster?
Overall, “creepy” is the best description I can think of for this adaptation. Roget’s Thesaurus doesn’t offer any good synonyms for “creepy,” so we’re stuck with it. “Boring” is another word I would use. If I hadn’t needed to watch this adaptation for the Odyssey, I’d have gladly taken the disc out of the player a fraction of the way through and sent it back to Netflix.
This is the 2nd worst adaptation I’ve seen. It’s not as bad as MP99 because at least this one actually tries to tell Austen’s story, whereas MP99 told its own story (and it didn’t even do that well). As I said before, I do own NA86, but I can say without hesitation that I cannot see any reason to watch it ever again. Ugh.