On Mansfield Park‘s official Miramax website, the book upon which the film is loosely based is heralded as “Jane Austen’s third and most controversial novel.” This claim, directed at Mansfield Park the novel, seems an attempt to re-invigorate interest in a text oftentimes considered Austen’s blandest. The film’s opening credits reveal other efforts to this revisionist end, informing us that writer-director Patricia Rozema has not only adapted the novel, but has also incorporated “the early letters and journals of Jane Austen” into her screenplay. The resulting film and its protagonist, Fanny Price, might be considered an amalgamation of Austen’s texts, historical facts regarding her personal life, and feminist notions concerning both.
As the film begins, we see Fanny as a pre-teen (Hannah Taylor-Gordon), her dark eyes pensive and shiny, her face pretty but her hair and clothes woefully unkempt. Hoping to ensure for her a proper marriage, Fanny’s mother sends the girl from their own squalid Portsmouth home to live with Fanny’s aunts and cousins, a hundred miles away in Mansfield Park. Upon her arrival there, Fanny is informed that although she is “not pretty,” perhaps she will be “useful” around the house.
This particular moment evokes that in Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women when Jo, played by Winona Ryder, is told that her long, lustrous tresses are her only beauty. Think about what’s being suggested in these two films by self-named feminist filmmakers. What kind of leap of faith must be taken by viewers to believe that Ryder or the lovely Taylor-Gordon are not “beautiful”? Why would Armstrong or Rozema use such conventionally appealing actors to symbolize girls who struggle with real problems concerning self-worth versus socially defined “beauty”?
Following this sniffy evaluation, Fanny’s aunt then shows her where she’ll be living, an isolated attic-room, formerly servants’ quarters. Almost immediately, Fanny sits down at her desk and begins to write. Suddenly, in a flashy time ellipsis meant to signify the passing of several years, we see Fanny become a poised and quietly attractive young woman (now played by Frances O’Connor). She has apparently spent much of her time writing at her desk by the window, overlooking the sprawling green estate that is Mansfield Park. The ellipsis suggests that Fanny’s efforts at self-education through reading and writing have become her saving grace in a place where she does not fit in. However small the attic-room, the desk appears large, providing Fanny with a sense of fulfillment that her relatives at Mansfield Park can only attempt to achieve through their wealth. Fanny’s intelligence and composure, indicated by her journal- and letter-writing at this desk, make her a familiar and comforting heroine.
Her letters are addressed to her sister Anne, who remains in Portsmouth, and are often read aloud by Fanny in direct-address to the camera. This technique recalls Matthew Broderick’s incessant winking at the camera in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. How this stylistic touch fits into the film’s narrative and aesthetics is a mystery. These ongoing asides seem designed as “explanation,” but most of her comments are also illustrated by events on-screen.
Fanny’s letters describe life at Mansfield Park as a “quick succession of busy nothings,” alleviated only by her writing rituals and alliance with her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), youngest son of the Bertrams (Harold Pinter and Lindsay Duncan), who intends to enter the parsonage, conveniently located on the grounds of the estate. Though he is clearly established as Fanny’s soulmate and sole confidante, he resists his own longing for her until the film’s end.
Edmund’s resistance seems cloying, meant only to prolong the film’s inevitable denouement. Still, it’s a repeated theme in Austen’s novels, that heroines fall in love with men whose social status exceeds their own. Those lads who are characterized as having integrity and sensitivity eventually embrace their less fortunate lovers due to these same characteristics. With his religious aspirations and adoration of literature, Edmund conforms to the romantic ideal of the perfect Austen mate.
Fanny’s and Edmund’s evolving romance is interrupted by the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz), a bohemian brother and sister act that proceeds to seduce several of the estate’s residents. There are several moments where Fanny and Mary seem to enjoy each other a bit too much, and their relationship and its potentialities remain delightfully and subversively ambiguous. But the dormant lesbian liaison never comes alive, as it’s soon clear that Mary, like her brother Henry, is adept at the art of manipulation. The duo appear to have secretly decided to possess both Fanny and Edmund (or Edmund’s not-so-bright sisters), as means to their seeming fortunes, and a great part of the film is devoted to dramatizing the brother and sister’s strained attempts at conquest.
Alas, it appears that Fanny, aside from her moments of flirtation with Mary, cannot be swayed from her adoration of Edmund, even by the beguiling lothario Henry, who goes to great and entertaining lengths to capture her (including a wagon full of starlings and firecrackers). Fanny stays her predictable course, refusing to trust Henry. And her suspicion proves correct when she catches him mounting her married cousin in a scene surely not taken from the novel.
Edmund is more easily swayed, at least at first. He takes (much too long of) a while to discover that the sexy dominatrix-like Mary is not an ideal candidate for the wife of a preacher. The film loses its momentum in these romantic meanderings. So much time is spent developing Henry’s pursuit of Fanny that one can’t help but begin to soften to his charms and wish she would shut up already. By contrast, the time and energy invested in developing the relatively wimpy role of Edmund seem meager.
Rozema’s previous films I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), When Night Is Falling (1995) contain an almost magical-realism, with their vivid colors and strong focus on female sexuality. She attempts to work a similar magic here, but Mansfield Park‘s narrative and erotic currents are much more prosaic. Perhaps the basic plot is un-updateable. Every time Fanny recites her mantra “Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!” one cannot help but long for a moment where Fanny would do just that, thereby leaving the over-rated Mansfield Park.
And yet, at times Rozema does inject the story, set in 1806, with a ‘90’s “sense and sensibility.” The worst case of this is a sporadic digression depicting Fanny’s increasing comprehension of her uncle’s dealings in the Antiguan slave trade. Her awareness culminates in the discovery of drawings depicting Sir Bertram himself engaging in vicious acts of rape, assault, and kidnaping. These scenes are grotesquely out of place within a romantic comedy of manners. Their position as dramatic (and too neatly resolved) sidebar trivializes them, as well as any liberal statements about slavery Rozema seems to want to make.
Perhaps these scenes are intended to demonstrate Fanny’s burgeoning understanding of the upper classes’ corrupt and murderous foundation. But she never acts on her realization. Instead, after a brief visit to Portsmouth, she realizes that she “belongs” with the Bertrams, regardless of their “moral” shortcomings. Her newfound sense of belonging is fully embraced near the film’s end, when Edmund finally realizes and declares his long-hidden love for Fanny, and she smiles securely out at the audience.