Mansfield Park

Suggested reading:

Mansfield Park: authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism

(1998), Jane Austen

The Friendly Jane Austen: A Well Mannered Introduction to

a Lady of Sense & Sensibility

(1999), Natalie C. Tyler

The author’s Inheritance: Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and

the Establishment of the Novel

(1998), Jo Alyson Parker

The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen

(1997), Edward Copeland (Editor)

Critical Essays on Jane Austen

(1998), Laura Mooneyham White (Editor)

It isn’t fashionable to like movies like Mansfield Park any more. You can just hear the disdainful remarks in certain critical circles: "So Masterpiece Theatre." (Condescension dripping acidly.) The hand-held camera is used minimally. The movie actually has a cogent plot from beginning to end. It is not brimming with arcane allusions. It is shockingly un-edgy.

Let them carp. Let them complain. Mansfield Park is one of the best movies of the year and one that will stand the test of time. It is, arguably, the best realized of all the Jane Austen novels adapted for the screen, including some superb predecessors like the wonderfully gritty 1995 Persuasion and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility with its Oscar winning screenplay by Emma Thompson.

Mansfield Park was written for the screen and directed by Patricia Rozema whose best known earlier movie was I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), a film that some found charming, but not enough – it hasn’t survived even on video. Nothing from that effort prepares one for the level of accomplishment here.

A tight, beautifully constructed screenplay tells the story of Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor), the heroine said to be, at least in part, autobiographical in Austen’s novel. Fanny is a story-teller and a writer, but not one lost in some romanticized fantasy world. She’s got her feet on the ground, she is unusually observant and perceptive of the behavior and character of the people around her, and she is funny and quick-witted. She has been rescued from the poverty-level home of her family to find a better life in the household of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter in a finely drawn performance). Bertram’s wife is a genteel opium addict, and their two daughters’ behavior toward Fanny is reminiscent of the Cinderella story. (Each of these women is a case in point on the effects of early nineteenth century sexism.)

It is Fanny’s cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) who treats her well as they grow up together and they form a bond of loving friendship. Edmund, though, ends up betrothed to beautiful Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) and her brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola) pursues the reluctant Fanny.

The script keeps all of this (and more) comfortably sorted out, the story unfolds with great clarity, and Rozema digs under the surface in a number of interesting ways. It is a character-driven film. The events that transpire are not arbitrary or inserted out of the blue for effect; they grow organically out of who these people are and the moment in history in which they find themselves. A principal theme is the rigidly circumscribed role of women in the society of the time, nearly 200 years ago. Surely Fanny’s options are few and her strength of character in view of her limited range of choice is all the more courageous.

Rozema smoothly interweaves a subplot involving the slave-trade which is the basis of Sir Thomas’ fortune. Fanny’s moral repulsion is evident and her empathy for the enslaved puts her own constricted life into some perspective. As unhappily subservient as was the role of women at the time, the lives and conditions of black slaves in the West Indies was of another order again. Still, it is valid to note that the perpetrators of the latter were the same as those who relegated women to, if not slavery, surely a sadly inferior role in society.

Rozema uses the English landscape and the huge, rather stark country estate to fine advantage. Her eye for image and detail enhances as well: a brief shot of the manse as clouds pass over the sun, throwing it into relief; a harp transported on top of a coach; the process of preparing paper and quill pen for writing; the vanities of the members of the household preening before their mirrors (also used, earlier this year, in An Ideal Husband); a swooping flock of swallows on the wing, expressive of freedom to Fanny, trapped in the social mores of her time. Rozema elicits good performances from the entire cast, most importantly and most successfully from O’Connor, who illuminates Fanny with intelligence, sensitivity, and spunk which would undoubtedly win Austen’s approval..

Some may carp at the liberties Rozema took with Austen’s book. Let the purists have their debates; the film is true to the Austen spirit and stands brilliantly on its own.

Arthur Lazere

poster from MovieGoods