“Mansfield Park” (1999 film)
I’m not sure if it’s a sign of my growing up, but I do believe Jane Austen’s flawed (and sometimes downright hated) novel, “Mansfield Park,” is replacing the much more fluid “Sense & Sensibility” to become my favorite of her works.
No one is more surprised than me. I’ve been a die-hard fan of the Dashwood sisters as long as I can remember, but lately I find myself much more drawn to a very different Austen heroine: Fanny Price.
Recently, I watched the 1999 film adaptation of “Mansfield Park” to see how it fared against my personal favorite version – the Billie Piper/Masterpiece Theatre one. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s pretty darn great if you can ignore the serious alterations and changes from the original novel. (The Masterpiece Theatre one, of course, is much more aligned with Austen’s original. Duh.)
In this film version, poor but plucky Fanny Price is sent to live with her wealthy relatives, the Bertrams. Fanny is accepted by her cousins as a sibling thanks to her charm and intellect, despite their being ordered to never accept her as their equal. This version of Fanny also writes letters and stories and appears to have a great deal of talent. She’s best friends with her cousin Edmund, and lets not lie, is in love with him. The Bertram clan are introduced to the attractive and appealing brother/sister duo of Henry and Mary Crawford, and the crushes begin all around – most notably, fancy Mary sets her eyes on clergyman-to-be Edmund. Sir Thomas Bertram is a hard man who doesn’t accept much frivolity. While he’s away, the young folk decide to stage a raunchy play – but Sir Thomas returns right as they’re about to begin, of course. It seems the distance and time have made Sir Thomas aware of how much Fanny has grown, so he declares they will throw a ball in her honor. By now, Henry has grown attracted to Fanny and begun to woo her. Though he’s charming enough, Fanny realizes he’s a rake and never really trusts him. When he asks for her hand in marriage, Fanny refuses and Sir Thomas sends her back to her poor family. Henry, however, doesn’t give up and continues pursuing her. Thinking Edmund is to marry Mary, Fanny accepts Henry’s proposal – and then wakes the next morning regretting it and takes it back. Henry throws a hissy fit and leaves. Soon Edmund arrives to take Fanny back to Mansfield Park, as Tom (the eldest Bertram brother, and a rogue) has fallen ill and may be dying. Returning home, Fanny discovers Tom’s sketchbook and realizes that Sir Thomas is up to some shady dealings with the slaves he owns in Antigua. When the scorned Henry runs away with Maria Bertram (who’s unhappily married to a doofus) the family is scandalized. Mary Crawford explains to them how, if Tom happens to die and she happens to marry Edmund, it’ll all work out just peachy for everyone. Disgusted by her proposal, Edmund breaks off their engagement. Long story short, Fanny and Edmund wind up together. Once again, duh. The film ends with a series of lovely tableaus of how things worked out, and it’s a sweet cinematic moment.
Frances O’Connor is a positively charming Fanny, and as likable a narrator as one can ask for. Cleverly, the script has her addressing many of her letters and stories directly to the camera, a move which helps enhance her appeal to the audience. Jonny Lee Miller doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Edmund, but whatever – he’s cute, he’s sweet, we get it.
The real surprises of this film are Harold Pinter (yep, THE Harold Pinter) as Sir Thomas, and Embeth Davis as Mary Crawford. You could have knocked me over when I realized that Pinter was in the movie, straight up. I had never realized that playwright Harold Pinter might actually be a person still around and working. He’s really great in this – alternately friendly and positively beastly. The stunning Davis makes Mary incredibly lovely and fun, even though we’re supposed to be rooting against her. This is made all the more awesome during her big final scene where she lays out her (rather ghastly) proposal.
(Hey, fans of “Doctor Who.” Remember the episode during the David Tennant reign with the blonde girl in the mirror? That’s Sophia Myles, and she’s in this, too, as Fanny’s younger sister, Susan.)
The screenplay, by Patricia Rozema (who also directed the film) definitely takes it’s liberties, particularly with Sir Thomas and the slave business. It’s a nice touch, adding a bit of social and political events to help better frame the piece – and most hits home when Edmund points out that, though they may not agree with slavery, the Bertrams live off the profits of the plantation Sir Thomas runs. In addition, this version of Julia does not elope with Mr. Yates, but instead gets a love letter from him at the very end of the film. Also, the stories Fanny writes are actually earlier works of Jane Austen’s, squeezed into the film as – in my opinion – a love letter to the author. All these changes actually work, so kudos to Rozema for having the balls to mess with a classic – which doesn’t always work out.
It’s a lively film, with gorgeous scenery and costuming. Jane Austen fans will appreciate the beautifully shot dance sequence at the ball. (Seriously, there cannot be an Austen film adaptation without a dance sequence. It’s a law or something.)