NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.2007
I think it is important, in times when it is unpopular to avoid extra exposure to worldliness, to bear in mind that there is a great difference between the words “innocent” and “naïve”. It’s the difference between the pure and the primitive, between inexperience and ignorance. One is good, and I would posit that the other is not. And yet what often happens is that innocence and naïveté are lumped into the same category, endowed with the same sweet smile, and either loved or hated as an inseparable pair—the one being unjustly associated with stupidity, and the other incorrectly associated with virtue. In Northanger Abbey’s heroine, Catherine Moreland, we discover at least one of them, and it’s more important than we might realize to ask ourselves whether it’s the good one or the bad one; because the fact is that we don’t always remember the difference between innocence and naïveté—or even good and evil—when it comes to film.
Perhaps we wouldn’t call Northanger Abbey evil, exactly; I don’t think it merits that; but I’m afraid we aren’t able to call it innocent or pure, either. I’m still not quite sure what it is about made-for-television films that makes them so much more offensive than cinema films. Perhaps it really is that television audiences generally need more perverse content to hold their attention through the advertisement breaks. Whatever it is, you can safely expect a television writer to do something crazy with the original story, like taking innocent little Catherine Moreland and stripping her of all her clothes for the camera… which is exactly what they did, except that, while Catherine is indeed naïve, she does not turn out to be as “innocent” as we thought.
In her moments of actual innocence, we see that Catherine is uncomfortable being flirted with in real life, but over against that, her daily fantasies show her smiling at being physically handled by imaginary highwaymen—in her naïveté not recognizing the impurity of her own thoughts. And while the more mature characters in the film do try to preserve Catherine’s ignorance of the reality of sexual misconduct, she is still devouring fictional fornication stories about an evil monk (worldview element, right there) who enters into a “voluptuous” woman’s bedchamber, lustfully watches her undress for bathing, and then says, “I must enjoy you or die!” From this beyond-questionable material proceeds another fantasy—a dream—in which Catherine’s love interest approaches her while she is lying in the bathtub, responds to her distress at her nakedness by assuring her that there’s “nothing to be ashamed of. It’s all God’s creation,” (another worldview element) and gently pulls her to a standing position—exposing the audience to as much of her back as could be shown on television, while he smilingly gazes at the rest of her. The worst part of it is that it’s in the movie; the second worst part is that it’s completely unnecessary—as is the scene of Catherine’s friend lying unclothed in bed talking to the man with whom she just committed fornication. After a few gratuitous scenes like that, the kiss at the end almost doesn’t seem worth mentioning.
Catherine’s fantasies usually involve violence or intensity of some sort, from coach drivers getting shot to one of Catherine’s real-life friends being stabbed to death.
Much of the objectionable content in Northanger Abbey was (predictably) added in by the scriptwriter. The language issue, however, is something we can thank Jane Austen for. The difference is that blanking out the last three letters of the word does help a little in books, and it really doesn’t in film. There are half a dozen variations of "d---" in the movie, a couple of uses of the Lord’s name that might be sincere, and a couple that most definitely are not.
Alcohol is inconspicuously featured.
There are two main worldview themes in Northanger Abbey (besides the evil monk and the unbiblical view of human nakedness) that require mentioning: the portrayal of the church and that of the family.
Catherine’s lover (the same one from the bathtub scene) is a clergyman. Catherine seems unimpressed. Catherine’s friend says that being a clergyman “counts for nothing these days,” as far as morality goes. The man himself creates a dangerous false dilemma with the candid statement “I often think there is more life and truth and feeling in a good novel than in a hundred dull sermons.” He also doesn’t see going to the opera as inconsistent with the office of a minister of the gospel, not even when the opera happens to be one that (albeit in German, and off screen) offers up prayers to idols*.
More worthy of immediate concern, perhaps, is the way the clergyman’s relationship with his father is portrayed—with just enough show of respect on the part of the son to make us feel that the father is a worthless fellow who really deserved to have his daughter’s love life kept secret from him, to have been “broken with” by his son, and to be set up as an example of just how disagreeable it can be to have a father in the house. Jane Austen is partly to blame, but to be fair we’ll never know for certain just how she meant this phrase: “I leave it to be settled whether the tendency of this story be to recommend parental tyranny or to reward filial disobedience.” It could be taken as a rhetorical device: presenting an either-or choice between two options when the real answer is obviously neither. Tone of voice and image selection go a long way, however, and in the movie the favorable emphasis seems to be given to the “filial disobedience”—a strange and slightly disconcerting way to end a film that already had too much going against it to get a positive rating from me.
Catherine is Jane Austen’s sweetest, gentlest, most childlike heroine, and she’s the most naïve. What she lacks—and what the movie declines to promote—is innocence. In Northanger Abbey it’s hard from time to time to distinguish between the two, when it comes to Catherine. When it comes to those of us in the audience however, it’s more simple: innocence will be offended by the sexual content, by the flippant talk of God and damnation, by all the little recurring themes that conspire to diminish perhaps even our own respect for the God-ordained institutions of the church and the family. And innocence is too valuable to be compromised by a made-for-television Jane Austen flick.
Now, can you watch Northanger Abbey without risking a compromise to anybody’s innocence? I think you probably can. You can always look away at certain parts, and mute other parts, and lecture yourself and everyone around you about the dangers of subtle worldview messages in the movies. I think that’s an option. I just don’t think it’s worth it.
I don’t advise watching this film in the first place, but if you’re going to watch it, I advise reserving it for women who are at least fifteen years old, and who are not naïve.
* Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an Enlightenment opera which incorporated the worship of Isis and Osiris, as well as several other objectionable themes.