Mansfield Park (United States/United Kingdom, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Mansfield Park has always been viewed as Jane Austen's most confounding novel. Scholars are divided over its literary merit, and many Austen-philes prefer to ignore its existence altogether, seeing it as a kind of "black sheep" in the author's catalog of six completed, published books. Mansfield Park has also intimidated filmmakers. With the exception of a BBC miniseries, this novel has never been adapted for a visual medium… until now. Canadian director Patricia Rozema's radical approach to the material will leave some Austen fans staring blankly at the screen in stunned disbelief. Others, including those who have not read the book, will be delighted by the changes and will see Mansfield Park as a welcome addition to the recent wave of impeccably produced Austen movies.

The are three primary problems associated with filming Mansfield Park. In the first place, the text is long (this is Austen's second most verbose novel). Secondly, it's a deeply introspective work, with much of the "action" taking place inside the heroine's head. Finally, that heroine, Fanny Price, is passive and difficult to like. To put her on screen the way she is on the written page would risk driving viewers away. Rozema's innovative (and possibly controversial) solution has been to change the text. In streamlining the plot, scenes and characters have been eliminated. Rozema also allows Fanny Price to address the camera, reducing the use of the voiceover narrative. And, most importantly, the director has altered Fanny's personality by injecting a great deal of Austen into her. The result is a hybrid of author and creation. Fanny has often been regarded as the most autobiographical of Austen's characters; Rozema has simply taken this one logical step further. As a result, this Fanny is bright, funny, and affable (despite being a "wild beast" and having a tongue that is "sharper than a guillotine"). We don't have any problem rooting for her happiness.

As freely as she subtracts from Austen's text, so Rozema also adds. Four subtle themes from the written version of Mansfield Park are brought into the open. As one might expect from a director with Rozema's resume (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, When Night Is Falling), there is a strong feminist streak in the movie. Austen has always been viewed as a "proto-feminist," but Fanny's strength of character and independence here go beyond what's in the book. Condemnation of the slave trade, a "hidden" theme in the novel, is considerably fleshed out. There are also strong hints of lesbianism and incest. And Mansfield Park becomes the first Austen-based movie to contain a sex scene. (Note: a different, less graphic version of this scene has been used in the theatrical release than the one shown to film festival audiences. Rozema made the change of her own volition.)

Some Austen purists will undoubtedly howl with the same kind of outrage voiced by Shakespeare enthusiasts when they viewed Baz Luhrmann's "sacrilegious" version of Romeo + Juliet. It's as if a strict, slavish adherence to the text is the only way to film a novel. That sort of standard approach was used to excellent effect for the astonishingly beautiful 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice – but the finished product ran so long (more than 4 ½ hours), that it couldn't have been presented in theaters. Adapted in full, Mansfield Park would have been as long, and far less engaging. Rozema has distilled the novel into a form that is more accessible, yet still faithful to Austen's themes, ideas, and basic storyline. For the record, the director made an intensive study of Austen before writing the screenplay, and, as is stated in the opening credits, she uses excerpts from Austen's journals and early writings in the script (they are the text of Fanny's letters and stories). Those familiar with Austen only through the other movies will find Mansfield Park to be much in the same vein as what has preceded it to the screen.

The film begins just after the turn of the 18th century. Young Fanny Price (played by Hannah Taylor Gordon as a child and Frances O'Connor as an adult) is shipped off from her squalid home in Portsmouth to live with wealthy relatives in the country estate of Mansfield Park. Once there, she feels isolated and lonely, with life being like "a quick succession of busy nothings." Because of her inferior social class, she is treated as an outcast by most of the family: Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter), Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan), and cousins Tom, Maria, and Julia. ("She is not your equal," Sir Thomas instructs his children. "But that must never be apparent to her.") Only Edmund (Philip Sarson as a child, Jonny Lee Miller as an adult), the Bertrams' second son, is kind and open. He takes an interest in Fanny's writings, and, over the years, they become friends – and perhaps a little more. Although Edmund is seemingly oblivious to it, Fanny has fallen in love with him, and her affection is more than that of one cousin for another.

The scene shifts ahead several years, and life at Mansfield Park is considerably shaken by the appearance of Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz), a cosmopolitan brother and sister who arrive from London in search of marriageable prey. Much to Fanny's dismay, Mary sets her sights on Edmund, and he appears receptive to her overtures. Meanwhile, although Henry initially flirts with all the eligible young women at Mansfield Park, his attention eventually focuses on Fanny. He likes a challenge, and she provides it. Her reluctance only fuels his desire, but she does not trust him ("his sole interest is in being loved, not in loving [another]") and she is distracted and dismayed by the growing bond between Edmund and Mary.

One prevalent theme in all of Austen's writings is evident in Mansfield Park: the woman who follows her heart rather than succumbing to society's conventions finds happiness. Those who marry for wealth or position inevitably end up despondent. Fanny resists Henry's overtures because she loves Edmund. One of Rozema's most successful changes is to soften Henry's character so he appears to be a sincere and viable match for Fanny. This makes the romantic twists and turns of the narrative less sure than those of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, or Sense and Sensibility. Even someone familiar with the book may be surprised by Fanny's reaction to one of Henry's proposals.

The quality of acting in Mansfield Park is variable. This could be attributed to Rozema's determination to avoid "the usual suspects." A few of the cast members don't seem comfortable in their period costumes. The most credible performance is given by Hannah Taylor Gordon, who was recently seen as the young girl in Jakob the Liar (a film in which she was one of only a few things worth mentioning). Australian Frances O'Connor is the other standout. She effectively uses facial expressions to convey emotion, and part of the reason we like Fanny is because of the energy and spirit O'Connor imbues her with. Unfortunately, her co-stars aren't on the same level. Alessandro Nivola (Pollux Troy in Face/Off) and Embeth Davidtz (Schindler's List) are adequate, but the depth of their acting doesn't match O'Connor's. More uneven is Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy in Trainspotting; more recently as the second half of the duo of Plunkett & Macleane), whose portrayal of Edmund is occasionally uninvolving and even a little flat. Offbeat play director Harold Pinter has a strong turn as Sir Thomas.

With an agenda as ambitious as Rozema's, there are bound to be areas of potential dissatisfaction. One of the most discussed and visible elements of the movie is the way in which it deals with slavery and the abolitionist movement – two "hot button" subjects when the novel was written. In one scene, we see Fanny's horror as she looks at a sketch pad depicting the mistreatment of Africans. At that instant, she realizes the source of the Bertrams' wealth and comfort. Conceived and executed by Rozema, it is a darker moment than anything Austen ever committed to paper (although it is in keeping with clues found in the book). However, while there is undeniable heft to these sub-themes, and they broaden Mansfield Park's dramatic base considerably, Rozema fails to integrate them smoothly into the overall narrative, making them seem grafted on to the larger whole.

While Mansfield Park is substantially different from the other recent Austen films, it retains a few links, not only in terms of content, but with regard to some of those who were involved in the production. "Protocol Expert" Jane Gibson worked on Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility as well as Mansfield Park. The same dual credit can be assigned to cinematographer Michael Coulter. And actress Victoria Hamilton, who plays Maria Bertram, is in her third Austen movie – she portrayed Mrs. Forster in Simon Langton's Pride and Prejudice and Henrietta Musgrove in Roger Mitchell's Persuasion.

Of all the Austen novels to reach the big or small screen during the '90s, this one makes the most departures from its source material. From a technical standpoint, Mansfield Park is gorgeously composed, with standout production design and stunning cinematography. The screenplay achieves the difficult goal of making Mansfield Park both accessible to and engaging for a modern audience. Overall, this is a fine addition to the filmed Austen canon, even though it may not suffice as a primer for students who have been assigned to read the book. And, for those who have come to love Austen through cinema, take heart: Northanger Abbey is slated for a theatrical release in 2000. Until then, Rozema's Mansfield Park should slake nearly every movie-goer's thirst for the most beloved female author of the pre-Victorian 1800s.

Mansfield Park (United States/United Kingdom, 1999)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1999-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1