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Mansfield Park
A movie review

Frances O'Connor as Fanny

Frances O'Connor as Fanny

Mansfield Park

Director : Patricia Rozema

Principal cast

Jonny Lee Miller
Embeth Davidtz
Alessandro Nivola
Frances O'Connor
Harold Pinter
Lindsay Duncan
Sheila Gish
James Purefoy

Photo : Courtesy of Miramax.

By C. Antonio Romero

NEW YORK, 31 December 1999 - The Jane Austen franchise is hot in Hollywood right now; rich source material and built-in box office (thanks to earlier Austen-based successes) boost odds of a critical and commercial smash for any talented director wanting to take on one of her novels that has yet to be brought across. Pare the action down to a manageable hundred minutes or so, gather a pretty cast, let Austen's material loose, and you've got a winner.

So, at least, must have gone the thinking behind producing Patricia Rozema's Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. (Note the power of branding here... the poster reads not "Mansfield Park" but "Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.") Adaptation, however, is a tricky thing - one must figure out one's relationship to the essential in the work to be adapted.

One can treat the source with reverence, merely condensing to suit the constraints of film time, as was done in the recent Emma and Sense and Sensibility adaptations; one can drastically transpose the work into a new context, as was done for the wildly successful film Clueless (which was loosely based on Austen's Emma). One can even turn an adaptation into an opportunity for ironic comment on an original (1997's under-rated science fiction film Starship Troopersfalls into this class, turning a novel with fascist undertones into an ironic commentary on such politics), or into a metadiscussion of the authorship of the work adapted (David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch exemplifies this last, becoming a story about the writing of Naked Lunch). But in any case the source must somehow be dealt with, or the adapatation can cease to be one at all.

In the case of Mansfield Park, the adapter's chief crutch - engaging source matter - is unavailable; in fact, the source material becomes a liability. Austen's toughest slog of a novel is burdened with a family of upperclass twits on the decline (the Bertrams), a deliberately uncharismatic, passive and reserved heroine (Fanny Price), and, as the primary catalysts for the action, a couple of obviously dangerous and unappealing if charming libertines (the Crawfords, come to introduce the latest London crazes and play out their little dramas on the Mansfield Park stage). For those looking to be more entertained than edified by their Austen, it's hard to imagine how Mansfield Park could ever have been particularly entertaining.

That said, the novel did have a certain integrity. Its program was to articulate an easily traced set of conservative values -a distrust of novelty in general and new money in particular, anxiety over the growing decadence of the upper classes, resistance to a gratuitous sophistication identified as emanating from London, a nostalgia for an authenticity identified with the country and old aristocracy. These values are embodied in the novel most of all by Sir Thomas Bertram and Fanny Price, and to a lesser degree by the budding clergyman Edmund, Sir Thomas's second son. The plot's whole logic is driven by the interplay among characters as representative of different positions in this moral constellation.

The problem with Rozema's adaptation is that it never convincingly engages this set of questions, projecting instead a very different political agenda into the work which cannot be reconciled with the plot or the original characters. In creating her adaptation, Rozema made a number of changes to make the novel more appealing to a 1990's sensibility. Most significantly, Rozema conflates Fanny Price with elements of Austen's own personality, as revealed in her diaries and juvenile writings - a bold and interesting choice, but one which takes the novel's paragon of chaste modesty and authenticity and turns her into an extrovert and spinner of extravagant fictions. The new Fanny is not merely witty and sharp-tongued, but also playful, even flirtatious. Other characters undergo similar transformations - Henry Crawford is remade as an almost-irresistible sentimentalist, whose eventual misdeeds can be explained as much by Fanny's fickleness as by any natural depravity of his own.

Rozema's other changes run far deeper, ultimately gutting the philosophical and moral core of the novel in order to import fragments of a late-twentieth-century politics and ethics into an early-nineteenth-century work. Sir Thomas Bertram, the pole for the novel's moral compass, is undermined as the film's focus broadens to include an exposé of the (general, and specifically sexual) brutality on the Antiguan plantations which in Austen mutely provided the material basis for the Bertram fortune. Sir Thomas becomes a kind of proto-Kurtz, borrowed from a century in Austen's future (and his son Tom's dissipation is attributed in part to the shock of discovering and recording his father's activities). Fanny, meanwhile, is transmogrified into a budding abolitionist and feminist, drawing parallels between forcing women to marry for money and the enslavement of Africans.

Despite such drastic changes, Rozema preserves most of the plot of the novel; but as many incidents now have lost their original motivation - their place in Austen's argument - the audience is left wondering what to make of them, and the story as a whole fails to coalesce. For example, in both novel and film, the Crawfords entice the Bertram household into staging a "home theatrical" - specifically, a performance of Lover's Vows, a steamy spectacle all the rage in London at the time. The play is basically a pretext for the rehearsals, which themselves are mere pretext for all manner of scandalous flirtation in dark corners of Mansfield Park.

Sir Thomas' unexpected return from Antigua as the play is about to be staged is a major turning point in the novel; he re-establishing the deteriorating moral order, and Fanny, who has refused involvement from the start, is elevated to a favored position in the household. In the film, however, little more comes of this event than momentary embarassment for all concerned, and the entire sequence seems like a throwaway. Fanny, far from taking up a new place in Sir Thomas's good graces, becomes shortly thereafter a pariah for her ambivalence the affections of the handsome, charming and well-to-do Henry Crawford (whose money would provide a much needed infusion of cash for the family fortunes). And Crawford, despite being the instigator of the morally dubious theatrical and having spent much of the early going flirting with a married woman, is so winning in his pursuit of Fanny that it is easy to ask, "Why not marry him?"

Possessing, then, neither the internally coherent motivations of its source nor its own original inner rule, the film becomes a mere pretext, a thread from which to suspend the sensational, the merely scintillating, the modern - ironically, the very things that Fanny stood against in Austen. Scenes are there to provide sensual pleasure (macro-zoom loving lingering over Fanny's pen, paper, ink), to charm (a flight of doves, a fireworks display), or to supply sizzle without steak - a gratuitous nude scene, and hypersexualized Mary Crawford's new lesbian streak.

By the time the end of the film rolls around, largely mirroring the end of the novel, it's not entirely clear how we got there; and however much one enjoyed certain bits of the journey - great settings and costumes, and solid performances from all concerned, including Frances O'Connor as a winning (if a bit too old) Fanny and Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas - the end product is an adaptation that does nearly as much violence to its source matter as, say, Xena: Warrior Princess does to Greco-Roman myth and ancient history, preserving some trivial details but infusing so much of the modern, the sexy, the merely flashy that the whole is stripped of any sense it once had.

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