The year 1987 brought some good things into the world- like me, for instance! It also brought some really crappy things- like a bizarre TV adaptation of Northanger Abbey! I just found it that originally aired only two days after I was born. This was the first adaptation of the book (it’s just not as popular as her others, probably for the same reasons I listed in my review) and it was the only one for another twenty years. It was scripted by Maggie Wadey, who also wrote the 2007 version of Mansfield Park….yeah, there’s your first hint that it isn’t going to be great.
I like to call this version “Northanger Abbey on acid. ” That’s the only explanation I can think of for this tragedy. The creators were high. Catherine, at least, was clearly on hallucinogens to be having all her weird dream sequences. Because this version is just weird! The only good thing I can think of was that it was actually filmed on location in Bath. And…that’s about it. Okay, a couple of the actors were decent (and only a couple!) but that wasn’t enough to save it! The script is horrible, Catherine’s fantasies are horrible, a lot of the acting is horrible, and the music is horrible- weird 80s stuff trying to lend a “spooky” atmosphere. This version also invents a really…odd character, the Marchioness, which I’ll go into more detail about below. Did they not realize that this was supposed to be satire? Because it seemed to take itself seriously- unless we’re all wrong and it actually was supposed to be a parody of the book… then the joke’s on us!
Katharine Schlesinger as Catherine Morland
The problem begins here. She was terrible- first of all, the writing for her character was bad. Catherine from the book was innocent and naive and liked to romanticize, but this Catherine really seems to have a hard time separating fantasy from reality. She is constantly having bizarre daydreams of being kidnapped, tied up, and implied to be tortured and raped. She even has a dream about the General before she even meets him or even hears of him! She is beyond stupid and I’m seriously wondering if she cooked some of the wrong mushrooms in her food or something and that’s the reason she’s having such hallucinations. Her acting is also terrible- most of the time, when she doesn’t appear to be in a drug-induced stupor, she just bugs her eyes out. Would Henry Tilney really fall for her? WOULD ANYONE?
Peter Firth as Henry Tilney
This performance upset me even more than Schlesinger, because while I don’t care that much about Catherine in the book, Henry Tilney is one of my favorite Austen characters! He’s just hilarious- I love a guy with a sense of humor. But Peter Firth’s Tilney is not amusing at all (unless you count the singing scene where I was laughing AT him). For one thing, he’s about ten years too old for the part. He’s also a bit on the effeminate side. And his delivery just seemed so fakey to me, with his “posh” accent and rolled r’s. Would Henry really talk like that? I don’t think so.I also don’t remember any mention of him being a clergyman.
Googie Withers as Mrs. Allen
She gave one of the very few good performances in this travesty of an adaptation. She captured Mrs. Allen’s kind but superficial and vapid personality very well. Unfortunately, she looked rather too old for the role. (Isn’t she supposed to be the same age as Mrs. Thorpe?)
Cassie Stuart as Isabella Thorpe
She could have been okay, but she was just so obviously evil and devious that I found it hard to believe that even Catherine would be taken in by her charms. With all the gaudy makeup she (and her mother and sisters) were wearing, they looked almost like prostitutes. Then again, this Catherine went beyond naive to just plain stupid, so maybe she would be fooled after all.
Jonathan Coy as John Thorpe
Like Isabella, he was also too over the top. He was definitely a cad, but he was almost creepy. I thought he was a jerk in the book, sure, but I wasn’t creeped out by him.
Ingrid Lacey as Eleanor Tilney
One if the film’s few high points. She was beautiful, sweet, elegant, and refined, like the Eleanor of the book. I don’t know how she managed to put up with this Catherine, though. When talking about her mother’s death, Catherine actually asks if she saw the “corpse” and how it looked. Way to have some tact! Eleanor took it in stride.
Robert Hardy as General Tilney
The general in the book is supposed to be quite fit and good-looking, despite his age. He was also always Mr. Manners towards Catherine (until he found it she wasn’t an heiress, that is). I love Robert Hardy and all, but there’s no way he would be considered attractive. And he was so gruff throughout pretty much the whole thing that I can’t believe Catherine would want to stay at his house.
Geoffrey Chater as Mr. Allen
He was perfectly adequate in his small role. I don’t have much to say. I’m just trying to spare any readers the pain of seeing the Marchioness.
Greg Hicks as Frederick Tilney
Like Mr. Allen, he was fine in his limited role. You didn’t get to see all that much of him in his scenes with Isabella…Are you sure you want to see the Marchioness? I guess, if you really insist…
Elaine Ives-Cameron as the Marchioness de…whatever
Good heavens! What the hell is this thing? No, it’s not another of Catherine’s hallucinations. She is supposedly General Tilney’s friend and confidante (mistress?) who in this version, is the one to tell him that Catherine is not an heiress. (Where did she find that out, by the way? John Thorpe?) Other than that she serves no purpose but to look scary as hell! What were they thinking with that makeup? And the weird crescent-shaped mole thing by her mouth. I just don’t understand.
I really don’t know what they were thinking with this version. They completely missed the point. Was it supposed to be an over the top parody? Because I wasn’t laughing. Northanger Abbey itself also misses the point-in the book it’s supposed to be a nice, modern building. Here it really is a dilapidated old castle, which Catherine and the Allens actually first spot on the way to Bath. The laundry lists Catherine finds hidden in the book really are secret letters- between Eleanor and her beau (only mentioned at the end of the book). Henry and Catherine never make up after he catches her in his mother’s old room. She still believed him to be angry at her, and actually burns her copy of Udolpho. In the book Henry was not still angry and Catherine realized that she was projecting the fantasy of novels onto real life, and that was that. We never see the General consent to Henry and Catherine’s marriage. In the book, he gives in when he finds out that John Thorpe was lying- she was not a rich heiress, but she was not destitute. And it helped that Eleanor’s suitor came into money (aka his brother died, not mentioned because it’s supposed to be a “happy” ending) so they could marry. This movie ends with Henry and Catherine kissing in her yard. From the mood of the scene, it looks at first like it’s another one of her fantasies, but then her brother runs up and you realize it’s real. I actually thought that scene was okay, but this adaptation was still just crap.
I think the worst scene of all was the singing scene. The Tilneys, Catherine, and the Marchioness watch Henry and some girl (the Marchioness’s daughter? She must be, but she’s normal-looking so I couldn’t tell) sing and perform some songs. The girl is okay, but Henry’s singing is dreadful! Was that really Peter Firth? Wasn’t he embarrassed? During this performance, a little page boy leads Catherine outside and does cartwheels for her while she watches with a glazed expression, as if in a drug-induced stupor. Then it turns out to be another dream. I guess Henry’s singing was so awful she zoned out!
That was the only scene I laughed at. It didn’t seem like it was meant to be funny, unfortunately. I’d say watch this movie if you really want…but be warned. And only buy it if you want to have a complete collection. That’s why I did.
My Rating: 3/10