Friday, 27 January 2017

Kate Hepburn, 11/22/63 and Elia Kazan's America – Reviews #255

I've been busy writing, reading and working, but I found time to watch a few films too.


11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)
– This is the first Stephen King book I’ve read (though I’ve seen plenty of films based on his writing), I was drawn in as a fan of American history and a sucker for time-travel stories. Jake Epping is an English teacher in 2011 who’s shown a portal into 1958, located at the back of short order cook Al Templeton’s storage cupboard. He steps through and emerges in a world of tailfins, Lindy Hopping and harrowing domestic violence. His aim: to stop JFK’s assassination by monitoring and disposing of psychotic, communist mummy’s boy, Lee Harvey Oswald – if he can survive the interventions of an obdurate past that will sling all manner of abrupt, improbable obstacles into his path. First, though, he’s got some errands to run and a librarian to boff.

11/22/63 is overwritten and overlong, with clunky prose, a silly climactic dystopia and a lot of superfluous, blunt humour, but it’s also blessed with a gripping, meticulously plotted story and an unexpected moral grace. Its treatment of time travel is interesting too, as well as creating rules of the game that give melodrama a free pass and make coincidence almost profound, building to a climax of thrilling alternate history, before proceeding to go on for another 90 pages. Along the way, there are sly winks to cinematic history (Epping’s alias, George Amberson, is surely a reference to the character in Orson Welles’ vandalised masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons, the first cultural object I’d save, given a time portal) and historical novels dealing with the period (Dwight Holly from James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand makes a cameo), before a bittersweet ending that has more than a hint of Somewhere in Time - a much-maligned time-travelling romance with a devoted following. The book could be more economical and precise, and less hackneyed in its phrasing, sentiments and imagery, but King creates a compelling story set in an often vividly-realised world, and with an undeniably atmospheric, race-against-time crescendo best filed under ‘D. W. Griffith Does Dallas’. (3)

Next up is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I'm 300 pages in and it is ridiculously readable, ideologically terrifying and a little preposterous.


CINEMA: Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) – A truly beautiful, thoughtful and romantic film that deals with politics and philosophy through the prism of a wealthy family, while doubling as an utterly captivating rom-com. Cary Grant is Johnny Case, a working class boy made good, who meets privileged Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) during the first holiday of his life, forcing him to choose between a life of capitalist conformity and the idealism represented by Julia’s free-spirited sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn).

Based on a 1928 Philip Barry play, and adapted by the great liberal screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, it’s a remarkably deep, wise and incisive work that transcends its simple three-act structure, its running time and even its own story, seeming to live way beyond its boundaries in all directions. We encounter entire decades of these characters’ lives, to either side of the few weeks seen on the screen.

Though almost the entire cast are astonishingly good, the film is dominated by Hepburn’s magnificent characterisation, arguably the greatest thing she ever did on film. Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go) introduced the film at the BFI as part of the Screen Epiphanies strand, and eulogised her acting style during this period: innumerable emotions clashing beneath the surface. Later, he said, she either lost that virtue or abandoned it, shifting to a style of “one shot, one emotion”.

Linda is a woman shackled and patronised by her family, who finds solace only in the fourth-floor playroom created by her late mother, and escape in Johnny’s infectious zest for living. She idolises and idealises the shallow, grasping Julia, while her desperate fragility breaks more than once into quivering tears. But she’s also a ferocious fighter, fiercely individualistic, with a righteous anger and a devastating wit. “I beg your pardon,” says her father as Grant obligingly engages in a discussion about his suitability as Julia’s suitor. “I should think you would,” counters Hepburn, in just about the finest tone of sardonic disgust I’ve ever heard. Occasionally she traverses into a private school manner that I find a little much (“I do, reaaaally”), but Linda’s pretty much my ideal woman – intelligent, open-minded, loyal, funny and equipped to do a forward roll or an impression of a giraffe when duty demands it – without ever seeming like a caricature or mere wish-fulfilment.

Lew Ayres is almost as good, playing her despondent, booze-marinated brother, Ned. Prohibited from following his ambitions by his father, and with his lustre drained by alcoholism, his waning energies are channelled into sad reflection and bitter observation that’s both heartbreaking and hilarious. It would be easy to be turned off or alienated by a materially privileged character stewing in listless self-pity, but as a New York Sebastian Flyte, Ayres is so specific, so assured, so intensely, insanely likeable that his scenes aren’t just tolerable, they’re tear-jerking and timeless. “He’s in a spot, isn’t he?”, he asks Linda at one point, bleakly surveying Johnny’s chances of emerging with his principles intact. Later, as she flees the nest, the catharsis tempered by his inability to break free, she tells him: “I’ll be back for you.” “I’ll be here,” he murmurs into his glass.

Grant’s Johnny is a similarly vibrant, vital creation. Before the actor became waylaid by a tedious mahogany suavity, he was the best light comedian in Hollywood, and a dramatic actor of unheralded brilliance, and he makes Johnny’s plight remarkably real. This isn’t the fast-talking, exaggerated Grant of His Girl Friday, the stylised nebbish of Bringing Up Baby or the charmingly omniscient rom-com lead premiered in The Philadelphia Story, it’s the most human and appealing character he ever played, with more to say about his world and his times than any other role he was ever given.

Holiday is a snapshot of inter-war America, and yet it endures more than probably any other American film of its period. It’s an assault on conformity, rapacious materialism and – more subtly – fascism, as the odious Seton Cram (sometime Moriarty, Henry Daniell) memorably opines that he could make a lot more money “if only the right government was in place”. It’s also a film about the purpose of living, and especially the purpose of living in a capitalist world that values acquisition beyond accomplishment. Seton Cram’s antithesis is liberal professor Nick Potter, realised by regular Fred-and-Ginger foil, Edward Everett Horton, giving the straightest (in both senses of the word) and deepest performance of a spectacular career. He’s the only actor remaining from the 1930 version of the film, and knows the material inside out. He is warm, loyal, whipsmart but deceptively shambling, his intelligence and charm put to proper use, rather than commandeered in the service of business. His partnership with Jean Dixon – as screen wife, Susan – is immensely rewarding, their relationship like a sort of unglamorous, red-brick Nick-and-Nora, blessed with immaculate chemistry and impeccable timing. There’s one small shortcoming in this film, and that’s Julia’s character. She’s instantly dislikeable, where a superficial or eroding charm would have worked far better, and you wonder whether Mary Astor might have made more of the role in the 1930 film, her ethereal beauty and undeniable sensuality hoodwinking Johnny and the viewer more convincingly than Nolan’s shrewish reading of the character.

Ishiguro was keen to explain that ‘screwball comedy’ doesn’t mean ‘screwy comedy’, it’s a spin ball (from the baseball terminology) in which events have unexpected consequences, in which entertainment meets serious ideas, in which female characters are strong and intelligent and funny, and taken seriously. He listed Holiday as one of his three favourite, alongside It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday, and reserved a special level of ire for The Philadelphia Story – which reunited the same playwright, screenwriter, director and stars, and revived Hepburn’s flagging career, two years later – a work he sees as the reassertion of capitalist and chauvinist values after the Depression (I’d argue that it’s more complicated than that, but his extreme stance is a fun starting place for a discussion).

Holiday is very funny when it wants to be, and exceptionally romantic when it needs to be (that New Year’s kiss…), but it’s the film’s intelligence, erudition, humanity and philosophical daring that sets it apart. It’s obviously derived from a play, but it’s not overly talky and Cukor’s presentation is as cinematic as it needs to be, with some fine use of close-ups. He was Hepburn’s favourite director, having introduced her in 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, and knew how to get the best out of her: how to capture that vulnerability, that ephemeral, quicksilver quality, and that intellectual alertness that characterised both her characters and herself. There are dozens of Hepburn performances that I admire, and a half-dozen I truly love, but for me she reached a peak in 1937 and ’38 – ironically the most difficult part of her professional career – with this and Gregory La Cava’s astounding comedy-drama Stage Door.

It is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle film, catching four Hollywood acting legends – Hepburn, Grant, Ayres and Horton – at the zenith of their artistry, given room to live and breathe by Cukor, and fed almost the last word in articulate, humane and liberal mind-fodder by two writers of uncommon quality. (4)


The Catered Affair (Richard Brooks, 1956) – A sort of Mother of the Bride, translated to a working-class Bronx household, with Bette Davis as a harsh but loving mother who decides to pull out all the stops for daughter Debbie Reynolds’ wedding. She wants Debbie to have something she’ll remember all her life, but the process of planning it begins to alienate her friends and family: her older brother (Barry Fitzgerald), the matron of honour (Joan Camden) and Davis’s own husband (Ernest Borgnine) – a cab driver whose life savings, meant for his own cab, are about to be splurged on one meal.

This impressively low-key drama, originally filmed for TV with Thelma Ritter, made the transition to the big screen after the success of Marty – also written by Paddy Chayefsky. He characterised The Catered Affair as “an unfocused piece, in which the first act was farce, and the second was comedy-drama and the third was abruptly drama”. There’s some truth in that, but I think the celluloid version – adapted by Gore Vidal – is more coherent and cohesive than he’s suggesting (aside from a cheering but tonedeaf ending). Its problems are more an overabundance of similar viewpoints, Debbie Reynolds’ character – who seems to have wandered in from a frothy rom-com – and the fact that it just isn’t very funny; Fitzgerald’s scheming and scowling is good value, but the rest of it is either too vague or too stressful to make you laugh.

It is, however, an unusually thoughtful, honest and poignant film, set largely in an admirably scuzzy little apartment and with fine work from Fitzgerald, Borgnine, Camden (in an arresting bit part) and Davis. Her identikit line-readings struck me at first as a shortcoming, but that’s not typically a problem she has an actress, and I came to think of it as the key to her character. That rasping, dropping voice is a positive choice Davis has made to hammer home Agnes’s weariness and emotional repression. With her usual – and indeed increasing – lack of vanity, she looks dowdy, even haggard as she crafts a character who’s neither a selfless saint nor a mommie dearest, but a real person blessed with few illusions and beset by the chronic, thankless monotony of life. When she responds to a private character evisceration by wordlessly plaiting her frazzled hair, it is a moment of rare profundity: I’ve found that tragedy is usually and perversely accompanied by such shell-shocked mundanity. (3)

See also: Ritter and Davis starred together in All About Eve, the best movie ever made about the theatre.


I was supposed to be seeing this at the BFI, but TFL cancelled all the trains, so I streamed it on Amazon instead. £3.49 in HD if you want to do the same:

America, America (Elia Kazan, 1963) – Kazan’s epic, based on his uncle’s journey from Anatolia to America, is uneven but unforgettable, with many fine moments and astonishing Haskell Wexler cinematography. The director’s style seems so effortlessly virtuosic, juggling moods from absurdist comedy to frenetic violence, rhapsodic joy and despair, or else conjuring them from thin air through immaculately composed monochrome imagery and remarkable but unshowy editing.

The film suffers a little from formal artificiality – everyone speaks English, the accents are a shambles and the juxtaposition of location photography and synthetic studio sets in the early stages is frustrating – but the cast looks just right (no Hollywood glamour here), and from Fordian or Seventh Seal-ish silhouettes on a hillside to that quietly overwhelming kiss of the turf, the film shows a man whose command of his medium is absolute – the climactic coughing montage on the boat a simply extraordinary bit of filmmaking.

As you might expect from the late Kazan, though, he remains transparently tortured by the shame and guilt of his appearance before HUAC, in which he ‘named names’ of fellow communists. When the hero (Stathis Giallelis) says he keeps his honour ‘safe inside him’, he is echoing not only the character’s collaborationist father, but also the writer, director and producer, who oscillated endlessly between seeing his own actions as cowardly or heroic.

It is, ultimately, a film about the opportunities that America affords immigrants, and the hardships it is worth enduring to get there, which is both an enduring message and one likely to ring bitterly hollow for the foreseeable future. There’s also a bit where someone's told that they'll have to change his name from ‘Kardashian’ if they want to make it in America. (3)


Drive a Crooked Road (Richard Quine, 1954) – A very worthwhile and unexpectedly moving little noir, with Mickey Rooney typically excellent as a badly-scarred, self-loathing and possibly autistic mechanic, who's recruited as a getaway driver by ruthless playboy criminal Kevin McCarthy and his hard-boiled moll (Barbara Foster).

At times its low-budget is a hindrance – with an endlessly repeated musical motif and a pathetic opening set-piece dominated by lousy back-projection – while Jack Kelly's part as McCarthy's wisecracking heavy is basically just annoying, but Blake Edwards' story is genuinely affecting, there's some quietly iconic imagery and breathless action (the climactic drive is heart-in-mouth stuff, despite its overall vagueness and process shots), and Rooney is enormously touching as the lonely, unloved dupe whose great love is just a sham.

At his best, Rooney was arguably the finest screen actor in America (Young Tom Edison, The Human Comedy, National Velvet), but he typically needed both good material and a director who could rein him in. Here he seems to have both, and compared to his other best-known noir, Quicksand, in which he's supposed to be sympathetic but is written rather like a psychopath, this one comes off very nicely. It's rare to find such a gentle, sweet-natured, and quietly and consistently moral crime film; one that's about love, dreams and goodness, rather than lust, money and man's dark heart. Warner arguably did something similar with probably the oddest film in its '30s/'40s gangster cycle: Brother Orchid.

It'd be nice if Columbia and director Quine had put a bit more care into the finished product – even the impressive finale has one incompetent bit of staging that should have been re-done, as a man 10 yards away is shot by a bullet that goes directly upwards – but the film is sufficiently distinctive and original enough to succeed anyway, while leaning on all those noir tropes that I love so dearly.


"I never thought I'd make a killing on some guy's 'integrity'."
Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957) – A spectacularly cynical late noir, with Tony Curtis's best dramatic performance, as gorgeous, amoral press agent, Sidney Falco, who slimes his way around a vividly-realised, nocturnal NY, trying to save his own skin. He'll do whatever it takes to break up the romance between an idealistic jazz guitarist and a fragile young woman (Susan Harrison), in order to win the favour of her brother: all-powerful, creepily possessive Broadway columnist, J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), one of the movies' most frightening villains.

Director Alexander Mackendrick called satire "the snarl behind the smile", and here that snarl is barely concealed, as he mercilessly drags tabloid muckraking, capitalist compromise and phony patrotism under the lens. It's the feel of the thing too, though: a sweaty, desperate, and seductive trawl through the seething, rancid underbelly of urban America. It's in the striking performances and the avant garde angles (some of which are positively Wellesian). It's in the textures and timbres of Elmer Bernstein's classic jazz score. It comes from the peerless NY flavour, with stunning use of street locations by the great James Wong Howe; the bruising, blistering dialogue from regular Hitchcock collaborator Ernest Lehman (who wrote the original novella) and legendary playwright Clifford Odets.

It's also an enormously entertaining film, once you become attuned to its eye-watering misanthropy (or at least that of its characters), until it begins to stop and stutter with 20 minutes to go. Characters had to be punished in this era, and the tricks that the script has to play in order to do it are worse than fraudulent, they're laboured. There are flashes of inspiration and irony in those last two reels, but the intrusion of bathos into this nightmare vision has never worked for me. This is one movie where comeuppance should be outlawed; where sweetness doesn't spell success. (3.5)



Sherlock: Season 4 – A disappointing fourth series of what used to be the best show on TV, with flashes of brilliance but an awful lot of self-satisfied nonsense and bum-squeaking tedium.
The Six Thatchers – Mary’s got a secret and apparently we care. This opener was difficult to follow and had far too many platitudes in its script (a major problem with Gatiss’ writing), though it was terrifically acted and the music was fantastic.
The Lying Detective – An hour of light-hearted escapism about Jimmy Savile (terrifyingly rendered by Toby Jones), followed by an insanely good closing 30 that made this whole series worthwhile. The reveal was astonishing.
The Final Problem – Silly, disengagingly overblown, self-parodic silliness, with our heroes forced to play The Crystal Maze with Ayn Rand. The closing montage is a reminder that Sherlock was most fun when he, y’know, solved crimes. (2)


Thanks for reading.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Jane Austen, Pride, and Martin Scorsese pandering to my every whim – Reviews #254

I've only watched two films since 22 December (what the hell?), as I have been Broadening My Horizons*.

Thanks to everyone who read and shared my blogs last year. It topped 9,000 views in a month for the first time ever in December, which might not sound like a great deal, but meant a lot to me.

Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)

"Our lives shall not be sweated,
From birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies,
Give us bread, but give us roses."

The best British film I've seen since Attack the Block, taking a premise that seems merely like a liberal wet dream and fashioning an astonishingly erudite, funny and intensely moving movie, which works as an examination of our shared humanity, a startling recreation of the last stand of our country's working class, and a much-needed rallying cry at a time when the left has never seemed weaker or more irrelevant.

Ben Schnetzer plays Mark Ashton, a gay rights activist who persuades his friends to protest on behalf of the miners engaged in the longest and bloodiest strike of the post-war era; like the gay community, they've been smeared and attacked by the government, the police and the right-wing press. There's division on both sides − his colleagues have been persecuted by alpha males their whole lives; the miners think the poofs will turn them into a laughing stock − but their uneasy alliance grows in sincerity and power as it progresses.

Pride is of a piece with those popular and critical British successes of a previous generation − Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Little Voice and Billy Elliot − which effectively juxtaposed artistic or social endeavour (a key tenet of British working class life since time immemorial, just watch Humphrey Jennings' Spare Time from 1939) with the plight of community, as Thatcher systematically decimated the country's industrial heartlands. But I found it more even persuasive than those films, mixing Brassed Off's intellectual rigour and daring with The Full Monty's box office crowdpleasing, and Little Voice's embracing of the outsider hero.

A lot of that is in Stephen Beresford's script, which has a very clear voice, right from the off, full of distinctive, imaginative and beautifully balanced dialogue. I particularly enjoyed this exchange:

"I've never met a lesbian before."
"I've never met anyone who irons their jeans before."

There's also one instantly classic bit of dialogue that perfectly epitomises the collision between two worlds, as veteran mining committee secretary Gwen (Menna Trusler) alerts her colleagues to the presence of their visitors with the immortal words: "Dai, your gays have arrived."

It's in the film's emotional moments, though, that I found it most persuasive, and altogether unforgettable. Many of these are from Andrew Scott's tormented Gethin, given a lifeline by the venture, and from Schnetzer, astonishingly good as the driven, prepossessing and amiable Mark, whose flipside is a pained, alienated despondency. I had no idea he was a native New Yorker until googling him afterwards. There's also one of the best single-scene bits in aeons from Russell Tovey as Mark's friend Tim.

Occasionally the film becomes too cartoonish, usually when Dominic West's flamboyant gay actor, Jonathan, is permitted centre-stage, or Lisa Palfrey peddles her one-dimensional villainy, and my main quibble on seeing the cast − that perhaps drama-school-educated, middle-class Londoners aren't the best choices to play working-class Welsh people − was validated somewhat by Imelda Staunton's slightly synthetic performance, though Bill Nighy is often very good as sympathetic committee member, Cliff. One of the script's real virtues is its rich tapestry of human life: there are at least six brilliantly-drawn characters − what's the last film you could say that about? And the rest of the casting is superb: Paddy Considine perfect as the gays' first friend amongst the miners − a measured, compassionate man − Joseph Gilgun as funny and lacking in vanity as ever, George MacKay attractively callow and genuine as a fledgling gay, and Faye Marsay as the spiky, angsty lesbian who said that thing about jeans above.

The two scenes that utterly floored me, though, were the 'Bread and Roses' set-piece − built around as perfect an evocation of working class pride and dignity (and feminism) as was ever written, and augmented with tearjerking visual grace-notes from Scott and Liz White − and a note in the credits that resolves that age-old question: can a brief statement about block voting at a political conference ever make you cry? Director Matthew Warchus's building up of momentum during those final scenes just couldn't be better, finding solace and inspiration in what was a crushing and humiliating defeat.

This is on iPlayer for a few more weeks, and I would urge you to watch it. It's uplifting, mature, intelligent, entertaining and important: a valuable corrective to modern myths about people and politics, relentlessly peddled by a hypocritical media and a political establishment who continue to con millions of people into voting against their own interests, and then to blame those who have even less for their straitened circumstances. (4)

See also: Matthew Warchus went on to direct my favourite play of 2016, so well done him. I wouldn't be doing my job if I omitted to mention that we'll be joined by Mike and Jonathan from the LGSM for a special screening of Pride at the Royal Albert Hall next month.


CINEMA: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951) − A Hollywood art film, and as such one of the most interesting American films of its era: a metaphysical love story in which a poet (Marius Goring), a racing driver (Nigel Patrick), a matador and the Flying Dutchman himself (James Mason) risk death or worse in their pursuit of former nightclub singer Ava Gardner, and who can blame them?

I've wanted to see this somewhat notorious curio since reading Lee Server's biography of Gardner more than five years ago, which painted the actress as a voracious, hedonistic auto-didact who left behind her dirt-poor Southern upbringing to become a muse to some of the era's greatest men (including Hemingway), before depressingly if flamboyantly self-destructing. Server was at pains to highlight the unorthodoxy, originality and vision of this film (if not always the execution), and I finished the book wanting to see it more than any other.

It took an intervention by Martin Scorsese (a deus ex machina if ever there was one) to determine that not only would that be possible, but to ensure that it'd be on the big screen, thanks to his curation of a special season at the BFI featuring various oddities that have inspired him over the years. And seeing this farcically ambitious film as it was intended allowed me to luxuriate in its Spanish coastal locales, its incomparably sensuous leading lady, and writer, director and co-producer Albert Lewin's decidedly odd approach to just about everything, from shot framing to the rules of narrative (no, Albert, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever done a dream sequence within a flashback within a flashback before; even The Locket didn't try, and that had flashbackitis).

It's a bold, serious-minded and, yes, dreamlike film – though not without humour – that asks us to believe in faith, in fate, in legends, as Mason's sailor is doomed to sail the earth unless he can atone for his sins by, erm, making a woman die for him (bit sexist). He's good, though it's Gardner, as a cruel beauty transfigured by love, who dominates – she was often derided as an actress, especially during this period, but her untaught naturalism has aged extremely well, immune to changing modes of performance.

She is also the flat-out sexiest, most erotic actress there has ever been on screen: not the prettiest, not even necessarily the most well-proportioned or of a type still considered fashionable, but she has what Billy Wilder once called 'flesh appeal', appearing in 3D when everyone else is in two, her visceral appearance allied to a knowingness, a mixture of the ruthless and the vulnerable, and an ease in her skin that is intoxicating. Especially on the big screen.

Her conviction and attractiveness are as much a key to making this film work as Lewin's impassioned writing and his and Jack Cardiff's remarkable visual sense: notably exemplified by that shot of Gardner's face almost as a landscape, Patrick some vague cipher approaching her eternal beauty (a shot that seems to me to be echoed by Vilmos Zsigmond in The Argument); or her scarf on a headless statue that points out to the sea that will ultimately take her (that's not a spoiler, it's revealed in the first scene). I don't doubt that it was Cardiff's photography that drew, Scorsese, a massive Michael Powell buff, to the movie. Cardiff shot several of Powell's most celebrated films, including The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus.

The film is a little long-winded, at times simply too po-faced, relies overly on voiceover, and occasionally tips over into pretension or silliness, but it's also a genuinely ambitious, literate and artistic film, full of imaginative language, camera angles and ideas, and with just the right actress to play the beautiful, sensuous and thoroughly doomed Pandora. In fact, the only actress who could have done it. (3)

See also: There's a little about One Touch of Venus, Gardner's 1948 vehicle, in this thing here.



Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (published 1917)
– Jane Austen’s first completed novel, only published posthumously, is often cited as simply a parody of Gothic literature, but it’s immeasurably more: a witheringly sarcastic romantic comedy of manners, with precisely no intrusions from the supernatural or melodramatic, vastly more accessible and universal than I ever expected. Its spoofing, when it comes, is simply another comic device: Austen toying with the over-the-top expectations of her impressionable heroine, and suggesting that perhaps popular culture isn’t always the best guide to behaviour in the real world, a remarkably contemporary observation. You don’t even need to be a literature buff to get the Gothicism jokes, as Austen gently, deftly introduces the genre tropes in amusing discussions between the hero and heroine, before meticulously layering them one upon the other, then puncturing the bloated illusion with a sharp, incisive revelation.

The story has 17-year-old Catherine Morland, Austen’s most naïve heroine, going to Bath – where she finds love and friendship – and then on to Northanger Abbey, where she is assailed by intrigue of her own imagination. It’s faster and arguably funnier than any other Austen book, with a truly bruising wit – particularly when angled at braggadocious bore John Thorpe, who has Catherine in his sights – and some breathtakingly modern, absurdist observations from love interest Henry Tilney, whose satirical, laborious constructing of false positions is basically my entire sense of humour. There are also piquant, pungent passages dealing with superficiality, duplicitousness and greed, and startlingly clear-eyed, refreshing characterisation that seeks to rescue the novel from the clutches of the unbelievable. Having a character who starts to pay attention to a woman only because she clearly fancies him is a refreshing change from the hyperbole of many romantic novels.

About three-quarters of the way through the book, Austen arguably pushes Catherine too far, the heroine’s fanciful conspiracy theorising transgressing from the appealing to the appallingly insensitive, but even this potential (and indeed apparent) misstep is merely waiting for a suitable pay-off, and gets one in a denouement that has enormous, escapist fun in tying up loose ends with glee and elan – her callback to the notes in the ‘japan’ bureau is particularly and exceptionally charming.

In the Christmas Radio Times, a Bronte fan was sneering at Jane Austen for the primness of her heroines, but it’s both a misreading of those characters, and lacks insight into the differences between an author’s viewpoint and that of her creations. Catherine Morland becomes a woman over the course of these pages, but even before that she makes judgements chiefly about herself, and is shocked by cruelty and hypocrisy as opposed to a breach of accepted manners. Austen too, more than in any other book until Persuasion, showcases a contemporary sensibility that’s remarkably fair-handed, wise and good-natured, her blistering sardonism a formidable weapon turned only on the most deserving causes. She’s so fierce and funny, so strikingly modern, that painting Austen (or one of her heroines) as an endlessly shockable shrinking violet does her a ridiculous disservice, and seems to miss what it is that fans respond to so keenly in her work. (4)

Next up is Stephen King's 11/22/63, which I'm halfway through.


Thanks for reading.

*newcomers: this is an homage to my beloved A. A. Milne, I do know how to use capital letters