The last half-decade has been very good to Jane Austen: Besides Ang Lee's estimable 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, we've been given film or TV adaptations of Emma, Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice, not to mention Clueless, Amy Heckerling's remarkably apt updating of Emma. Now Miramax and the BBC have co-produced a new version of Austen's third novel, the 1814 Mansfield Park, with Patricia Rozema, a Canadian, directing. Given that Rozema's last feature, When Night Is Falling (1995), may well have been one of the worst films of this -- or, as they say, any other -- decade, it is a genuine shock and delight to report that with Mansfield Park the writer-director redeems herself admirably.
Austen literalists may be thrown by some of Rozema's changes -- the introduction and emphasis on arguably anachronistic political and social concerns, the addition of occasional hints of lesbian sexuality, and the interpolation of elements of Austen's own life and character into protagonist Fanny Price. This is definitely not your mother's Mansfield Park. (For that, you can still rent the 1983 British miniseries on tape.)
The film opens with 10-year-old Fanny (Hannah Taylor Gordon) traveling from her poverty-stricken Portsmouth home to the eponymous estate to live with the Bertrams, her wealthy relatives. (Mrs. Bertram and Fanny's mother are sisters.) Despite the warmth of Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), the master of the house, Fanny is treated like a domestic by her other aunt, Mrs. Norris (Sheila Gish), who is also part of the household. Shunted off to a garret room -- which is apparently supposed to be depressing but which any child nowadays would kill for -- Fanny grows up (at which point actress Frances O'Connor takes over) with a status uneasily balanced somewhere between servant and relative. While there are two Bertram daughters -- Maria (Victoria Hamilton) and Julia (Justine Waddell) -- roughly her age, her closest friend is youngest son Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller). The relationship is platonic on the surface, but every directorial nuance lets us know from the start that these two should end up together.
Just when Maria, the elder daughter, is preparing for a loveless but socially proper marriage to the doltish Mr. Rushworth (Hugh Bonneville), the seductive brother-sister pair of Mary (Embeth Davidtz) and Henry (Alessandro Nivola) Crawford arrive and shake up Mansfield Park's social stability. Henry sets his sights on Maria; Mary sets hers on Edmund; and both of them (it is implied) set their sights on Fanny, who is, by any reasonable standard, the prize of the bunch.
Further confusing the household dynamics are the comings and goings of eldest son Tom (James Purefoy), a rebellious young man whose dissolute, self-destructive behavior may be, in part, the result of his liberal social consciousness. The resolution to this stew of romantic tension is arrived at through a merry-go-round of mostly (but not entirely) chaste couplings and uncouplings.
For some Austen buffs, the most contentious element may be the changes Rozema has wrought in the protagonist. To make her less of a stiff, the director has wisely moved her closer to the vibrancy of the Emma Thompson character in Sense and Sensibility; she turns Fanny into an aspiring writer, crediting her with passages taken directly from Austen's own diaries and letters.
But for others the biggest problem may be the contemporary lens through which Rozema views the story. The Bertrams become a symbol of the hypocritical contradictions underlying the genteel social manners of the period's upper crust. The extent to which the family's rich lifestyle is the result of morally reprehensible investments in Caribbean slave-labor plantations is heavily underscored; Tom's physical and spiritual illnesses are presented as a direct repercussion of the moral rot beneath Sir Thomas' benign exterior. This is further tied to an authoritarian, patriarchal structure that also oppresses the Bertram women, despite their material privileges. The seemingly sensitive Sir Thomas turns into a monster when Fanny dares to question his choice of a mate for her.
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Add to that the implications of subterranean sexuality: Not only are two scenes touched with Mary Crawford's desire for Fanny, but some other subtly fleeting moments suggest that both Sir Thomas and Fanny's father are less than completely paternal in their feelings toward her. These provocative suggestions are not social anachronisms -- lesbianism and incest are clearly not 20th-century developments. But they are, to some degree, literary anachronisms, out of place in Austen's representation of the era.
Still, Rozema makes a dramatically compelling case for her reinterpretation of the book. She does make occasional missteps -- for instance, the use of narrated tableaux to tell us the characters' fates is clunky -- but they are minor and unrelated to her bolder decisions.
O'Connor as Fanny is irresistibly appealing. And Miller -- who, curiously enough, made his screen debut at the age of 11 in the 1983 BBC version of the book -- is totally appropriate and not nearly as forgettably bland as he was in his other recent period film, Plunkett and Macleane. In a canny casting move, Lindsay Duncan plays both Fanny's mother and Lady Bertram -- characters whose very different appalling marriages represent the two major life choices available to women of their class and period.
Finally, a word must be said about Harold Pinter's performance as Sir Thomas. Pinter, surely one of the two or three greatest living playwrights, has made occasional screen appearances before, but none that revealed just how fine an actor he is. His Sir Thomas is a fully realized portrait of a man in whom decent impulses and villainy co-exist in a false, ultimately doomed equilibrium.