Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel is a dubious improvement over the BBC’s 1983 video release. The latter’s Fanny Price was an insipid twit, if not a caricature of Austen’s docile lead character. Director Rozema’s Fanny veers to the other extreme. But she’s much more interesting — much less a doormat and more intelligent — if not more attractive.
Fanny is a ten-year-old, dark-haired sparrow-sized girl who begins a new life at the country estate of Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas Bertram and Lady Bertram, her uncle and aunt, as well as the odious Mrs. Norris, have sent for her from her parents’ home in Portsmouth. She’s to be given all the advantages of the upper class — without ever being considered their equal. Fanny’s mother is Lady Bertram’s sister. She “married for love” rather than money and reaped the squalid consequences. Her husband is a loutish ex-seaman, and Fanny’s numerous siblings co-exist in cramped housing with rats and maggots.
Over time, Fanny (Frances O’Connor) blossoms into an energetic, beautiful young woman who is an indispensable, albeit servant-like addition to the Bertram household. Fanny’s mainstay is her abiding friendship with one of her four cousins, Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller). New neighbors, Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz), enter their lives. Mary flirts with Edmund. Her brother, Henry, flirts with Fanny’s engaged cousin, Maria. When Henry unexpectedly romances the much over-looked Fanny, she’s faced with the oft-repeated Austen dichotomy of marrying for money without love — or remaining single and insignificant.
Jane Austen fans will scratch their heads over scenes in “Mansfield” which seem slightly skewed or curiously unsavory. They’re an addition to the novel. (Austen’s letters and diaries were incorporated in the writing of the screenplay.) Fanny’s first contact with the Bertrams is Brontë-like — gloomy and abusive — rather than piquantly Austen. Also, her parental home, slum-like and sans servants, is a departure from the book.
In addition, one scene — sketches of nude women from the East Indies being raped by white men — is thrust upon viewers without warning; it’s out-of-place and left unresolved. England’s little talked about culpability in slave trading is a curious, but not unwelcome addition to this film. Jane Austen very briefly mentioned it in her novel. But it’s one thing to dress it up as historical perspective and another thing to do justice to the subject. (Rated PG-13: brief sensuality; sketches of women being raped.)
(Written by C.E. Chambers and published January 25, 2000 in The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition.)