Mansfield Park Movie Review

What is it about Jane Austen? This box-office stalwart has inspired five major film adaptations in the '90s (six counting the excellent BBC/A&E production of Pride and Prejudice in 1995).

I think I know what Austen's secret is: Her books are recent, but not modern. Her central characters have good manners and triumph over bad marriages or economic straits, instead of succumbing to their own vices or whining too much about their problems.

Mansfield Park is the last of Austen's major novels to be filmed recently, and I think it is usually considered Austen's weakest novel, though not too weak for cynical filmmakers to try to squeeze a bit more cash out of the writer's legacy.

Writer-director Patricia Rozema's cynicism comes out in other ways in this film, too. She transforms Austen's diffident, quiet heroine Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor) into a sassy, '90s, politically-aware attitude girl who shows up the fatuousness of most of the other characters. Only Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller), Fanny's true friend and ultimate love interest, meets her approval.

Worse, Rozema has embellished the tale with a subplot about the moral evisceration of Fanny's adopted family, the Bertrams, caused by the family's ties to slavery (based on a few brief references in the novel to family business in the West Indies).

The movie features one of the best casts in the Austen movie series: O'Connor is very good, Miller just as good, and Harold Pinter (he can act, too) does well in the revised, over-politicized role of Sir Thomas Bertram. Rozema's direction gives the polite, overwritten novel some needed sensuality.

Unfortunately, Rozema has also refracted the novel through a modern, unsubtle, feminist bias. The result is still better than the average '90s politically-correct sermonette, but definitely not a portal into a 19th-century brain (Being Jane Austen it isn't).

Austen's book is a study on virtues like "constancy," an un-modern concept which does not mean the same thing as monogamy, nor does it mean being "true to oneself," Thelma And Louise style. It means believing in certain moral values and being true to them even though others' conduct is not always good or bad. Some of this subtlety comes through in the film, but most of the characters are either too good (i.e. Fanny) or too bad (everyone else, especially Sir Thomas) to be realistic studies. The subplot about slavery is especially jarring, because it introduces something morally unambiguous into a story which is about tolerating shades of moral ambiguity.

The best dialogue in the film is in Austen's spirit, such as Fanny's observation that "Life is but a succession of busy nothings" or Edmund's wish for a "life of compassion and contemplation" (as a clergyman). But too much of the dialogue is the kind of blunt raving that would have made 19th-century families as dysfunctional as today's, except that they customarily kept it to themselves.

Many of Rozema's revisionist additions ring false, like making Fanny an aspiring writer (even if there were autobiographical elements in the original novel, I doubt that Jane Austen was the smartass that Fanny is portrayed as here) or having a character say things like "this is 1806, for Heaven's sake."

It was supposed to be 1806, but Mansfield Park the movie has a little too much 1999 in it --- naïve social criticism, bathos, and vulgarity. And judging from the popularity of Jane Austen adaptations, a lot of moviegoers are tired of movies that remind them of the present.

Still, they'll probably take any period drama they can get...



Mansfield Park Rating

" Good "

Rating: PG-13, 1999


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