Review: Mansfield Park (1999)

I have a really important rule that I try to stick to when watching movies. If it’s an adaptation of a book, don’t expect it to be anything like. It’s like being a pessimist. If you always expect the worst, sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Same with an adaptation: if you expect something to be completely different and then it’s mostly the same, you’ll think it’s brilliant. I generally try not to even be irritated if a movie is way off-base … it’s just not really worth it. Usually, things fall somewhere in the middle. They get a lot of things right, but they screw up a lot, and it all evens out. Such a movie is Mansfield Park.

Loosely based on the novel by Jane Austen (with additions from biographical material, apparently), Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor), a poor girl who is sent away to live with wealthier relations. She grows up with her extended family at Mansfield Park and reaps the benefit of upbringing and education, but is still always reminded of her lower station. As she grows up, she falls in love with her cousin Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller), but understands that she can never hope to marry him. The Bertram family is turned upside down by the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz), a charming pair of siblings. Henry pays court, to some degree, to all of the young ladies of the family: Maria, engaged to be married; Julia, the younger sister, and Fanny herself. Mary and Edmund strike up a friendship as well. After Maria marries, Henry turns the larger part of his attention to Fanny, eventually proposing marriage to her. She is mistrustful of his advances, and rejects him, which gains her the disapproval of Sir Thomas, her uncle, who exiles her back to her poor family.
Ultimately, Fanny’s assessment of Henry’s character is proven correct when he runs off with Maria. This crisis brings most of the family together again, causes Mary to show her true colors as well, and rids the Bertrams (all except Maria) of the Crawfords for once and for all. And, as you’d expect, Fanny eventually gets her happy ending.

First of all, I’d like to say that there were a lot of good things about this movie. It’s lovely to look at, and all of the acting is very good. Of particular note are Nivola and Davidtz as the charming but “modern” Crawfords. I enjoyed the inclusion of various subtexts from the novel, especially the anti-slavery message delivered through the contention between the oldest son, Tom, and his father over their plantations in Antigua. The addition of biographical material relating to Austen herself was harmless, and actually added a bit of cohesion through Fanny’s acting as narrator.

I do, however, have some issues to discuss. Big surprise, right? Here’s what I don’t understand. If you want to make an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, you should do so. If, on the other hand, you want to make a “period drama” with lots of fairly anachronistic sexy bits and some extra romance thrown in, well, I’d imagine there are plenty of screenwriters out there with a story to sell. I guess the reason you’d take an Austen novel and add in the sex and romance yourself would be because people are more likely to see something “based on the beloved novel by Jane Austen,” or whatever it is the movie blurbs say than just some random period piece. But for someone who’s read Austen, and a fair amount of Victorian novels besides, it’s just sort of weird, offputting, and confusing.

I mean, there’s no sex in Jane Austen. Oh, it’s there, obviously, particularly when a young man and woman run off together and her reputation is consequently ruined. But it’s always implied, and never spelled out. But here, we’ve got Mary putting the moves on Fanny during a play rehearsal in order to fluster her audience (Edmund) and Maria and Henry actually being caught in bed together. Not to mention Fanny kissing both Henry and Edmund. I will grant you the kissing at the very end, if I must, but mostly, I guess I just like my Austen to be pretty sexless. You don’t see anyone smooching in Ang Lee’s marvelous Sense & Sensibility, now, do you? And would you say that movie wasn’t romantic enough? Not if you want to remain my friend, you wouldn’t. (Just kidding.)

I guess the main thing I would say is that the director/screenwriter Patricia Rozema had a good understanding of her source material, but wanted to play up the more “modern” and “sophisticated” aspects of the Crawford’s sensibilities. In my opinion, she went a bit too far, so that they ended up seeming overly anachronistic, as though they were really time-travelers from the twentieth century who stumbled into 1803, or whatever. Not only in those few examples, but overall in terms of their behavior and dialogue. And unfortunately, it threw off the entire feel of the movie. I think that it could have been a very lovely and true adaptation had those few tweaks not been made. I’m sure that’s just me, though, and I know others who love the movie. So take the review for what it’s worth. I thought it was a good movie with a major failing at its heart, but I think it’s worth watching if you like period dramas. It was just … a little too spicy for me.


One response to “Review: Mansfield Park (1999)

  1. Wonderful review, Sam, and somehow I had an inkling of what you’re gonna say on the ‘saucy’ liberties that Rozema took w/ this film. I like this one a lot but yeah, I could do without the boobies showing and the overt flirtatiousness of Maria towards Henry… so yeah, I too would prefer ‘…my Austen to be pretty sexless’ as the author herself would want to as well, I’m sure. I think you’re right that the filmmakers want to have the Austen title for marketing reason, as they could’ve easily call this something else and have the tagline be ‘inspired by Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park’ or something like that.

    In any case, the good outweighs the bad for me still, I just love O’Connor who’s so likable and sympathetic as Fanny, I also have a soft spot for Miller though Nivola easily outshines him… he’s just so darn seductive. I applaud Fanny for her willpower to reject a guy like THAT 😀 Oh… not to mention James Purefoy… I wish he had a bigger role though.

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