by Cathleen Myers
After the great Jane Austen film boom of 1995, it’s nice to see yet another Austen film in the movies (screen adaptations of her unfinished novel Sanditon, of her Gothic satire Northanger Abbey, and a sequel to Sense and Sensibility called The Third Sister are said to be in the works). While we applaud the prospect of another Austen boomlet in the movies, we’re not very happy with the new Miramax version of Mansfield Park, directed and written by Patricia Rozema. While some of the other screenwriters of Jane Austen-based films have given Austen co-credit as screenwriter, Ms. Rozema does not – and with good reason. Unlike the other recent Jane Austen films, Rozema’s uses little of Austen’s witty dialogue, the screenplay is a virtual rewrite of Fanny Price’s story, and there is an original subplot.
Admittedly, the quiet, highly principled Fanny is a difficult character to bring to the screen. Readers from Jane Austen’s time to the present have disliked her. Rozema’s solution – which Janeites are not going to like – is to rewrite the story, transforming the meek Fanny into a courageous, liberated young woman who aspires to be writer. Rozema draws on the juvenilia of Jane Austen to create the juvenile stories of Fanny Price. It’s very amusing because Austen’s teenage stories are hilariously funny, but it does take time away from the rest of the story and from the other characters, who are sketchily developed here.
A colleague has described the film as "a very good Regency romance" about a spirited and talented young girl named Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) from a poor family who goes to live with her rich aunt, Lady Bertram, who has married a baronet, master of the palatial Mansfield Park. Treated as a glorified servant by the rest of the dysfunctional Bertram family, Fanny is befriended by Edmund, the baronet’s younger son (Jonny Lee Miller) who guides her reading, encourages her ambitions to be a Jane Austen-style writer, and becomes the object of her seemingly hopeless love. In fact, the film could almost be called a parallel universe science fiction story: Suppose the liberated Jo March from Little Women traveled back in time to take the place of Fanny Price at Mansfield Park. Interesting! But if you’re expecting a faithful adaptation of a great novel, you will be disappointed.
Like most Miramax costume films, Mansfield Park is a visually beautiful movie with some excellent casting, especially in the supporting roles. The three Ward sisters – dim-witted but still beautiful Lady Bertram, officious Mrs. Norris, and washed out Mrs. Price (looking heart-breakingly older than her elder sisters) – are beautifully cast and even look like sisters. Poor Mrs. Price, a once pretty woman worn out from poverty and multiple child-bearing, has the funniest original line of Rozema’s screenplay as she pleads with Fanny to accept rich, charming Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal ("Remember Fanny - I married for love!"). Fanny’s spunky teenage sister Susan is played exactly as Austen wrote her and emerges as one of the most attractive characterizations in the film. Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter) is formidable but kindly. And the Crawfords (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz) simply walk off with the show – to the point that Fanny’s continual resistance to Henry’s rakish charm seems not only obstinacy (as Sir Thomas calls it) but imbecility. As for Mary – she’s as stylish, sultry and sexy as her admirers could want. Even Edmund is a little more personable than usual. It’s hard to play such a virtuous young man and prevent him from seeming a prig, even though Rozema gives him dialogue that at times borders on insolence. As for O’Connor’s Fanny, well she’d be a great Jo in Little Women! One wonders, though, why Sir Thomas didn’t throw his rebellious niece out of the house long ago. More effective are the child actors who play the 10 year old Fanny and teenage Edmund with impeccable period manners.
The film is littered with careless historical inaccuracies which could have easily been avoided: One scene has the gentlemen smoking in a room with ladies!!!! The ball hosted by the strict conservative Sir Thomas Bertram features a waltz country dance (at least we think that’s what it’s supposed to be) with "closed waltzing" – enough to drive Sir Thomas to apoplexy. Remember that in 1806 (the year of the film’s official setting) the waltz was danced only at racy Society parties. The costumes vary from elegant (especially the men’s costumes and Mary’s redingote) to eccentric. Perhaps inspired by Jo’s scribbling suit in Little Women, the costume designer puts Fanny into some kind of scribbling pinafore – something the real Fanny wouldn’t be caught dead in. Still odder, almost everyone is on a cozy first-name basis – even the men – in a society that actually stressed last names, as anyone with a nodding acquaintance with Jane Austen’s novels should know. The Bertram sisters are introduced as "Miss Julia Bertram" and "Miss Maria Bertram" – though any high school AP English student could tell you they should be introduced as "Miss Bertram" and "Miss Julia Bertram" (eldest sister first – with only younger sisters being addressed by their first names). And the magnificent manor house used for Mansfield seems more suitable for a ducal palace than the residence of a baronet with cash flow problems.
There are also problems with tweaking a 19th century novel to make it more relevant. Rozema devotes a lot of screen time to social issues. Lady Bertram’s indolence is, in this version, due to opium addiction (Drugs are bad, mmkay?). Tom Bertram (the heir) is an alcoholic because he really hates the fact that his father is a slave-owner with a large plantation in Antigua. Sir Thomas does get his consciousness raised a little before the end of the movie. Tom stops drinking, though I guess Mom’s still on drugs. And Fanny gets even more liberated and speaks her mind even more. But with all this liberal revolution of thought, we’re still supposed to think Mary Crawford is a really bad girl for suggesting that the Bertram family forgive their erring daughter Maria’s adultery. So much for Christian charity and liberal feminism! Brother Tom can be forgiven for helling around but Maria can’t, and Mary is condemned for daring to speak against hypocrisy. Sir Thomas is liberal enough to consider freeing his slaves but not liberal enough to forgive a daughter who has fled an impossible marriage.
Yes, Maria Bertram is a selfish and perverse spoiled brat who destroys her own character. But does she deserve to be sent into permanent exile for an adulterous affair? In Jane Austen’s novel, there is a subtle condemnation of the double standard that punishes the woman and not the man. But in this liberal 1999 film, we’re left with a sense of "the bitch deserved it." We’ve come a long way, baby.
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