by James Berardinelli
November 15, 1999
For Patricia Rozema, it's the end of a long day. As I sit across from her in the living room of her suite at the Philadelphia Four Seasons, it's obvious that she's exhausted. Spending hour after hour answering questions from a brigade of critics will do that to a person. Once we begin talking, however, a remarkable transformation comes over her. The subject of her latest film, Mansfield Park, galvanizes her, bringing her to life. After just a short time in her company, I can understand why Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein hand-picked her to direct the latest entry into the Jane Austen cinematic canon.
Rozema admits that, before Mansfield Park, she did not consider herself the kind of filmmaker who would adapt a Jane Austen story. She has seen some (but not all) of the recent Austen-inspired movies, and recognizes that a whole aspect of the author's style has been lost, resulting in period piece romances that make Austen out to be more sentimental than she actually was. In fact, Rozema sees her as "one of the greatest novelists of the English language" who has an unparalleled "delineation of character" and is resolutely "anti-sentimental." While she will not speak ill of any of the recent Austen movies, it's clear that she feels none of them delved deeply beneath the surface of the text.
To Rozema, Mansfield Park isn't just Austen's most controversial novel, it's her most interesting. Is it her favorite? "I was the most stimulated and challenged by it," she parries with a smile. She reveals that when Harvey Weinstein first approached her to do the project, she rejected him, because she didn't want to use someone else's script. Once she got the go-ahead to write the screenplay, she began a period of intensive research that involved immersing herself in everything from critical essays on Mansfield Park to Austen's other published writings. Rozema wanted this movie to be something far more substantial than a sumptuous, run-of-the-mill motion picture that would sate the Masterpiece Theater crowd.
The aspect of the book that intrigued her the most was the way Austen confronted slavery - a hot political issue when Mansfield Park was written. In the movie, Rozema expands upon this theme, making the main character of Fanny Price into a more forthright abolishonist than she is in the novel. There is a sequence in the film (but not in the book) in which Fanny discovers a book of sketches depicting the horrible exploitation of Africans by her English benefactor, Sir John. As she flips the pages, Fanny realizes the suffering that lies at the source of the comfort she has enjoyed over the years. "That scene," comments Rozema, "was my reason for doing the movie - or at least one of my reasons."
There are other themes in the novel that Rozema amplifies for the film. One is the latent lesbian attraction between Mary and Fanny, which is more open on screen. Then there's the possibility of incest. During the scene when Mr. Price is introduced, he is presented as a leering, lecherous character who may or may not be involved in a sexual relationship with one or more of his daughters. Rozema explains that her intention was to make the audience feel "uncomfortable with the scene and the character [of Mr. Price]" without offering an explicit explanation. It's up to the individual viewer to decide how rotten things are in the Price household. However, Rozema does say that "incest is a theme in the book. There's Fanny and Edmund - they're cousins. Then there's Fanny and Sir John - niece and uncle."
Indeed, Rozema views Mansfield Park as something of a dark novel - or at least a darker novel than most people expect. She sees Fanny's environment as a "dangerous world," filled with unpleasant possibilities. In Rozema's view, one of the most important themes in Mansfield Park is that of captivity, both as it applies to the slaves and to Fanny, who is a prisoner in more ways than one (of her social class and her sex). Rozema admits that the movie is still primarily a love story, and that will probably strike the right chord for many viewers. "Finding one's true companion is one of the most important things that anyone can do."
In developing Mansfield Park, Rozema used the text as a jumping-off point, but did not remain slavishly faithful to it. She likes my comparison of what she has done to what Baz Luhrmann did with Romeo + Juliet, and she recongizes that many Austen fanatics will see her film as "the work of a heretic." However, she is hopeful that the true lovers of Austen - those who have really read the books and understand something about the author - will appreciate what she has accomplished. Her intention here was not so much to do a rote regurgitation of the novel Mansfield Park but to offer a "collage" that is an "accurate portrait of Austen and her work."
It's fascinating to hear Rozema describe the process by which she developed Mansfield Park's dialogue. Initially, she wrote the passages in modern-day English, then went to Austen to find the "translation." On those occasions when Austen hadn't written anything close to what Rozema was looking for, she did her best to convert her '90s prose into something that mimiked Austen's style and approach.
The character of Fanny Price has been changed from the novel. In the movie, she's a more vital, likable figure. Rozema accomplished this by "adding a layer to Fanny by expressing her interior through [her own] stories which she tells to her sister. In the book, Fanny is interpreted through Jane Austen. In the movie, I'm the interpreter. In movies, we have a much more intimate, visceral relationship with the characters than we sometimes do in books." She also credits the performances of actors Hannah Taylor Gordon and Frances O'Connor for bringing the character to life and making her accessable to the audience. In fact, Rozema did all of the casting herself. The resulting offbeat troupe of actors was a conscious attempt to "avoid the usual suspects and make a statement that this is not an ordinary Jane Austen film."
Rozema is aware that, with Mansfield Park filling one of Miramax's plum end-of-the-year distribution slots, the movie will receive a great deal of attention. Doubtlessly, many so-called Austen purists will emerge from obscurity to rant and rave about how the writer/director has betrayed the source material. Those expecting a timid response are in for a surprise, however. With Rozema's knowledge of and passion for her subject, she will have no difficulty countering any challenge she receives.
© 1999 James Berardinelli
Go to Review of Mansfield Park