How one views the latest screen adaptation of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" will depend on how one feels about books on film in general. Are the books always better? Usually, my response would be a resounding "Yes!" If your first inclination is to agree that the original work rarely finds improvement on screen, then you will be stunned by what Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema has done to "Mansfield Park." The shock comes not from what she's cut, for even true Austen scholars look upon "Mansfield Park" as a lesser work, but from what Rozema has added. As one might expect on the strength of Rozema's resume ("I've Heard the Mermaids Singing"), there is a strong feminist bent to the film. Second, Austen's "hidden" anti-slavery views are fleshed out. Third, there are hints of lesbianism and incest, and Rozema becomes the first director to include a sex scene in an Austen-based movie. Fourth, she takes heroine Fanny Price and turns her into a strong, attractive, likable woman.
As embodied by actress Frances O'Connor, this Fanny is a delightful alteration from Austen's passive little miss whose life changes with whatever fate befalls her. "Mansfield Park" has been long considered Austen's most autobiographical novel, and Rozema and O'Connor take that interpretation one step further, making Fanny more like the tart, dynamic Austen. Even purists may find themselves applauding this departure from the original.
For those familiar with Austen's work only through recent movies, "Mansfield Park" will be in keeping with what they've seen before a clash of class, a mix of romance and irony. The film begins just after the turn of the 18th century. Young Fanny has been shipped from her squalid family home in Portsmouth to live with wealthy relatives at the country estate of Mansfield Park. Once there, she feels lonely and isolated, as much out of missing her family as out of her realization that she does not fit in. Because of her inferior social standing, Fanny is treated as an outcast by most of the Bertram family: Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan), and her cousins Tom, Maria and Julia. Only Edmund (Johnny Lee Miller), the Bertrams' second son, is kind to her. Because of this friendship, as the two grow up, Fanny finds herself falling in love with Edmund.
The idyllic freedom of childhood quickly vanishes, and the movie shifts ahead several years. Fanny and Edmund have grown ever closer, but without any romantic overtures from Edmund. Until the arrival Henry (Alessandro Nivola) and Mary (Embeth Davidtz) Crawford. This brother and sister duo set the estate on its ear, as both are looking for suitable, wealthy partners. Much to Fanny's chagrin, Mary sets her cap for Edmund. She's even more astonished when Henry turns his attentions toward her. The more she rebuffs him; the more ardent his pursuit. Another change Rozema makes is to soften Henry's character, making him a sincere suitor for Fanny's hand and heart.
As in all of Austen's works, the woman who follows her heart rather than kowtowing to society's conventions finds true happiness; those who marry for wealth or social standing end up miserable.
Despite all of Rozema's alterations, the one thing she couldn't change is the mediocre acting talent of her cast. While both actresses portraying Fanny "Jakob the Liar's" Hannah Taylor Gordon as young Fanny and O'Connor are standouts, the bulk of the cast is hit-or-miss. Pinter delivers a strong performance and is enjoyable as the oft-absent "slaver" patriarch, Sir Thomas. But Nivola, Davidtz and Miller don't have the depth of talent or emotional range to equal O'Connor. In the case of Miller, that's a major flaw. Without the chemistry between Fanny and Edmund, we really don't care whether they end up together. And to be a satisfying Austen movie, we need to feel they belong together.
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