Northanger Abbey 2007, The "UK Edition"

You sort of expect to have to dig through cut and censored prints of foreign horror movies on DVD; but you don't expect it to be just as bad collecting Masterpiece Theaters!

Northanger Abbey is the most under-adapted Jane Austen novel. There's pretty much only this version and the 1980s BBC one starring Peter Firth. Neither are definitive; both have their pros and cons and don't quite capture the entirety of the novel... so I'd recommend the pair of them about equally, and even together. A big part of the reason is because Austen was making a lot of direct references to - no, more than reference, almost parody of - contemporary literature. Of her day. Of course, with some smart alterations by a clever screenwriter, changes can be made that help bridge modern viewers to the story. But that requires us to step further away from Austen's writing, and the top quality thereof; because only a very small selection of audiences today could really appreciate all of the humor and implications of the novel as written.
You see, the lead character Catherine (Felicity Jones) reads a lot of novels. Far too many novels, according to everyone around her; but she's hopelessly caught up in her gothic romances. She has extensive daydreams and fantasies, which really set this one apart from Austen's other novels, to the point where she's neglectful of the real world. And when she's invited for an extended stay in a medieval country house, things finally get out of hand for her.

This version is written by Andrew Davies, who's pretty much the reigning king of adapting classic novels for British television, responsible for amazing versions of Vanity Fair, Bleak House, The Way We Live Now, He Knew He Was Right, Wives & Daughters, and of course the more modern House of Cards series. He's also been quite successful with Jane Austen, including the penultimate Pride & Prejudice version starring Colin Firth. Granted, he may have had a few missteps (I remember his modern retelling of Othello being a little goofy; but then again it seems to have quite good reviews, so maybe I need to revisit it), but this is not one of them. It's no P&P 1995, but it's still very good.
So let's talk about cut versions. As you might imagine, this modern version of Northanger does take the opportunity to spice up Catherine's fantasies a bit in the sexiness department. That ruffled a few purists' feathers, but that's not why this movie was cut. Did yo know, it's actually relatively common for Masterpiece Theater to cut down their British imports for broadcast? Yeah, so what you see on PBS is not always 100% of what people got to see aired in the UK. They just get out their scissors and trim things down a bit. Oftentimes, those cuts have been reinstated when it was time to release the DVDs... but not always.
In 2008, when WGBH released this on DVD, it ran a just under 85 minutes. Uncut, the movie runs just over 93 minutes. That's almost 10 minutes missing from an already short movie. And it's not just a PAL/ NTSC timing thing; lots of scenes were cut. A fantasy sequence, yes, but also conversations, small shots and moments. Fortunately, word got around and fans complained. So when they decided to release this on blu ion 2011, they came out with the "Original UK Edition" stamped on the front cover.

Update 5/23/15: Let's get real about this comparison! I've got the old, cut DVD here with me now, so let's look at precisely what was cut, and also hold up some screenshots to see exactly how different the SD and HD transfers are. We're not gonna settle for second best here at DVDExotica!

Note: the following time-coded section, explaining all of the cuts, is pretty spoiler heavy. Skip to the end of it if you wish to avoid spoilers.

When Mr. and Mrs. Allen talk about taking Catherine out into society for the first time, the cut version ends with Mr. Allen saying, "I entertain high hopes of our arriving at the rooms before midnight," and we cut to the carriages. But in the full version, the scene continues with Mrs. Allen saying, "how he teases us, Catherine. Midnight indeed." and Catherine smiling.

At the crowded ball, when Mr. Allen abandons the ladies for the card room, Mrs. Allen suggests, "perhaps we should cut to the tea room," Catherine nods, and we see a brief shot of dancing. The DVD then cuts to the introduction of our leading man, Henry, literally bumping into Mrs. Allen and then having a small chat. This actually skips over a whole scene, which continues follows the brief shot of dancing to Mrs. Allen and Catherine .comically spotting two empty seats, then running and pushing past a crowd of people to get to them before they're taken. The pair then have a substantial dialogue scene about how uncomfortable it is to be in society with nobody to introduce them. Starting to receive awkward looks, they conclude that they are unwelcome, stand up and make an embarrassed retreat from the room. Then they bump into Henry on their way out, and we're finally back in sync with the DVD. This isn't just an amusing scene onto itself, but adds some weight to the following scene, when Henry introduces them to the party and they are now made to feel welcome there. He didn't just show up and charm them, he rescued them from a social disaster. There's also a reference to this moment at the end of the movie, which only makes sense if you've seen the full version.

15.45: After leaving the dance, the DVD cuts to Catherine writing in her room, but the blu has an another scene first, where Catherine and Mrs. Allen tell Mr. Allen about Henry. Mr. Allen warns Catherine about the danger of "attracting all manner of scoundrels and adventurers." They then have a lengthy discussion of Henry, both comical and expositional; and it's here Catherine first hears of Northanger Abbey. "Is it haunted," she asks. "No doubt. These abbeys usually are," Mr. Allen replies. This is a pretty key scene, and it's hard to believe PBS thought it expendable. Trimming the button off the "arriving before midnight" scene is one thing - and I gather PBS's editor saw an opportunity for a site gag by cutting from Catherine asking Henry, "well, who's to say I keep a journal?" at the dance to a close-up of her furiously scribbling away in said journal - but it's a bit like cutting the part where Luke learns about the Force from Star Wars.

27.23: During the dialogue on the staircase, where Catherine is told Henry and his sister will not be keeping their promise to take her out, her friend says, "in this false world, people often make promises they have no intention of keeping." In the DVD, we then cut to Catherine saying, "but what if they come after all?" But in the blu-ray, her friend has more dialogue, saying, "remember, we are your true friends. We keep our promises," before cutting back to Catherine's line. It's a short moment, but, but not an unimportant bit of manipulation, considering they're actually the ones deceiving her.

39.39: After Catherine and Henry finally have their walk in the woods, and he asks her to keep his sister's meeting with a mysterious man a secret from their father, the DVD cuts to Catherine talking to her friend, skipping the following from the full-length version: first, a shot of a horse-drawn carriage racing at night. Then we find Catherine in a bath, and her voice-over narrates the further adventures of the monk receiving a magic talisman than will grant him access to a lady's bedchamber. We then enter her dream, where her bath is out in the woods, and Henry arrives in full preacher garb, helping her out, naked (though, for the record, nothing R-rated is ever in frame). She then awakens to her name being shouted. Finally, we see her friends walking through town towards her house, and that then cuts to the scene of them in her room as seen in the DVD.

This is the missing scene most people notice first, since it's easier to remember whether or not you saw Catherine naked in a bathtub in the woods rather than if you saw the extra lines of dialogue about whether they'd be late to the party. And it's probably the scene a lot of Austen fans mind losing the least, since nudity (even with nothing really shown, like here) and such overt sexual tension doesn't really feel faithful to Austen's sensibilities for the times she was writing in. I imagine the filmmakers would argue it's more like "if Austen had written it for today's audiences," but it's questionable at best. It's more a shame to lose that very funny voice-over about the monk that leads into the scene, however.

47.29: In the carriage, when Catherine is discussing with her friend why she danced with Henry's brother after just becoming engaged, her friend says, "he is the eldest son, you know,, the heir to Northanger Abbey. Not that that weighs anything with me; I'm in love with the best man in the whole world."The DVD then cuts to Catherine running dramatically down a stone corridor during a stormy night. But the complete version continues on in the carriage, with them further discussing the brother, "do you think he's handsome?" And Catherine asks the key question of the story, "then, how is one to know what to believe?" The carriage arrives, and then we cut to the stormy corridor scene.

50.45: After Catherine's friend tells her she has to wait two years to marry because her fiance has yet to come into his money, the DVD cuts to Catherine talking to Henry and his sister on a stairwell. But the extended version first cuts to a scene Catherine and Henry's sister walking through the woods discussing the two year delay, which turns into a conversation about "how many of us marry for love" and how Catherine's naive upbringing could indeed be dangerous for her. And Catherine confesses that she doesn't feel as pure of heart as people think her to be, for she has her terrible dreams. And then we cut to the staircase scene.

When the carriage arrives to take Catherine to Northanger Abbey, the extended version has a scene of Catherine saying goodbye to the Allens. A nice touch: when Mr. Allen says, "I should be sharp about it. These great folks don't like to be kept waiting," we see the captain outside pacing in frustration before Catherine bursts out the door. The US cut just cuts from the carriage arriving to Catherine coming outside.

59.09: After Catherine and Mr. Tilding's dialogue in the carriage as he takes her to Northanger Abbey, the US version cuts to them inside. The UK version shows their servants coming to meet them and help them out of the carriage. Honestly, this is the most painless of the trims.

1.01.32: The UK version has a shot of Mr. Tilney looking frustrated at how long Catherine is taking to come to dinner. We then see the ladies rushing through the house (being such a massive house, it's a long way to go) and finally arriving and apologizing. Mr. Tilney angrily shouts to his servants, "dinner to be on the table directly!" before leading Catherine to the table, where the US version begins. In short, the US version just cuts everything that's imposing and dramatic out of the Catherine's situation, and just gets right to the dialogue.

1.08.45: After Mr. Tilney's carriage rides off, the UK version gives us an exclusive scene of Henry and his sister taking Catherine apple pickings on the grounds, which the US version has excised. Hardly a critical loss, but it does sew some "when the cat's away" seeds (a la Mansfield Park), which of course lead to Catherine getting into so much trouble a short while later, and it's probably good to have a reminder of how well Catherine and Henry get along when things aren't as dark as the Abbey tends to cast them.

1.28.21: When Catherine admits to the the Allens that she may be as much to blame for being exiled from Northanger Abbey as any of the Tilneys, the US version cuts to her little cousins asking her if the abbey was scary. But the full-length version first has a scene of Catherine burning her novel in her room. It may be a bit of a heavy-handed moment, but it also seems to be a pretty key moment, and so near the ending, for PBS to callously cut it.

1.33.24: A single line is taken out of one of the very final scenes. Cuts so deep into the finale feel particularly presumptuous of PBS, though it is a rather fleeting moment. When Henry is confessing to Mrs. Allen, she says, "You had no part in what happened, Mr. Tilney. And Catherine is as you see her: no harm done. Any friends of our children are welcome here." To which he replies, "oh, very good." At least in the US cut. In the UK cut, Mrs. Allen says, "shall we agree to talk no more about it?" And that's when he replies, "oh, very good." So nothing earth moving, but the longer version does make Mr. Tilney more gracious, and the moment overall feels more natural in its complete form. It's also a strange cut, since PBS gained hardly any time at all, since the line goes by so fast. If they needed just an extra half second of commercial time, surely they could've just trimmed a few frames off an establishing shot instead?

All of these cuts just feel very meddling. And while most aren't too destructive, it's certainly a better film in its complete form. Enough so that I think any Austen fans who were initially disappointed by this film during its initial Masterpiece Theater broadcast or the DVD ought to make sure they've seen the complete cut before dismissing it. Nothing so huge was cut that you could no longer follow the plot, but anyone Austen reader knows that everything hinges on delicate moments.
2011 blu-ray on top; 2008 DVD below.
2011 blu-ray right; 2008 DVD left.
2011 blu-ray on top; 2008 DVD below.
And comparing screenshots, we can see there is definitely more detail and a clearer, more streamlined look to the blu-ray. This is pretty much what you'd expect from a blu-ray upgrade. But what I wasn't expecting to find was the weird PAL/ NTSC issues the DVD had. It's of course an NTSC disc, but it plays at PAL speed, considerably faster than the blu. And as you can see in the second pair of shots, it also has ghosting frames from the conversion. It's very noticeable in motion whenever the camera pans horizontally, it has a very herky-jerky look. Although I guess this is hardly the first UK show to have that problem on a US disc. But it's just one more factor that makes the blu-ray a more valuable improvement. It has the complete cut of the film, boosts it to HD and it corrects a bad PAL conversion job.

I'm not sure they would have even selected this title for a blu-ray release if it wasn't for the fact that this doubled as an opportunity to appease fans miffed about the cuts. So thankfully, this actually lead to us getting the full, uncut version and a nice upgrade to HD. ...Still no extras unfortunately, except for a Downtown Abbey commercial at the start of the disc and optional subtitles (the DVD at least had closed captions). The back of the box says this is 1080i, not p (because it was probably telecined that way for TV). Overall the image looks quite attractive, not interlaced, with a lot of intentional soft focus.
All in all, its a nice transfer of a nice movie, and an essential upgrade for anyone who bought the 84 minute DVD. There is also a blu-ray release in the UK, but it's only available as part of a set containing the ITV's other two Austen adaptations from the same period, and their Mansfield Park wasn't so hot. There's no extras on that one either, but it does purport to be 1080p so if anyone wants to splurge, they might find a minor improvement. But I imagine they're going to be pretty close. Recommended.

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