Masterpieces and mysteries

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  January 14, 2008

The jewel in this Austen tiara is Northanger Abbey, which is directed by Jon Jones and has a script by Andrew Davies, whose distinguished résumé includes the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series, the 1996 Kate Beckinsale Emma, and the new Sense and Sensibility, all part of this collection, as well as the two Bridget Jones films and the recent Bleak House on Masterpiece Theatre. Finally, Jane Austen with a sense of humor! Throughout the early stages of this production, we see hilarious black-and-white depictions of Catherine Morland’s Gothic imaginings: duels, dungeons, Catherine in agonized ecstasy as a highwayman fingers the cross at her neck. When Henry Tilney (JJ Feild) makes himself known to Catherine (Felicity Jones) in Bath’s Lower Rooms, a rueful Mrs. Allen (Sylvestra Le Touzel, the Fanny Price in the BBC’s 1983 Mansfield Park) reflects, “I shouldn’t have allowed you to speak to him, as a stranger. But he had such an understanding of muslin.” Later, when Henry expresses the fear that he’ll cut a poor figure in Catherine’s journal, she teases, “Perhaps I don’t keep a journal at all.” In the novel, they continue to converse, but here Jones cuts immediately to Catherine back in her room in Pulteney Street, writing furiously.

Turning the flirtation of Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan) with Captain Tilney (Mark Dymond) into a seduction is a heavy-handed mistake — given Henry Crawford’s condemnation for seducing Maria Rushworth in Mansfield Park, how can Eleanor Tilney (Catherine Walker) excuse the behavior of her brother (and our heroine’s future brother-in-law) with a blithe “He is accustomed to having his way”? And Catherine is cleaned up a bit — in the book, after she’s cast out of Northanger Abbey and returns home to Wiltshire, her mother has to prod her to be useful, but here she’s a devoted mother hen to all her younger siblings. No matter: Felicity Jones is all wide-eyed radiance and unselfconscious appetite as Catherine, and a jovial JJ Field affects an understanding of love as well as muslin. They also have one of the best proposal scenes in any Austen adaptation (Austen herself, you’ll recall, gave particulars only for the proposals that were rejected): when Henry halts mid declaration to advise Catherine of his limited prospects, she, jigging up and down with excitement, interrupts: “Please, go on with what you were about to say!”

Miss Austen Regrets, which has as its Jane Olivia Williams (Jane Fairfax in this collection’s Emma), is not yet available for preview. Given that Harris Bigg-Wither’s proposal is the only one we can be certain Jane Austen received (she may have refused Edward Brydges, and there are hints of other love interests), there must be a considerable degree of speculation in this bio-pic, as there was in Becoming Jane. For Pride and Prejudice, the series has preferred the 1995 mini-series (with Colin Firth) to the 1980 one, and for Emma, the 1996 A&E TV movie (with an entitled Kate Beckinsale as Emma and a masterful Mark Strong as Knightley) to the 1996 theatrical release (with its emotionally open Gwytheth Paltrow and a puppyish Jeremy Northam). These were reasonable choices; if I would have chosen otherwise, that’s just my own preference.

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