Riding the tide of Jane Austen mania comes Patricia Rozema's intriguing and daring reworking of "Mansfield Park." Written between "Pride and Prejudice" and "Emma", Austen's third novel was in her words, "a complete change of subject."
Yet while it delves into similar themes of identity and true love that her other works cover, this story primarily unfolds in the mind of its heroine, Fanny Price. It has, therefore, proven a challenge to filmmakers: Except for a BBC production in the 1980s (recently aired on the Romance Classics cable channel), it had confounded film adapters.
Rozema took the unusual step of reconceiving the main character of Fanny. While many scholars see her as an authorial stand-in, the writer-director turned to Austen's journals, letters and juvenilia to fashion a provocative take on the character. This Fanny is less passive and, as embodied by the wonderful Australian actress Frances O'Connor (who shares her countrywoman Cate Blanchett's trait of being able to look radiant one moment and plain the next), serves as the film's anchor.
By also tinkering with the conception of the worldly Crawford siblings (played by Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola) and making them more overtly sensual, Rozema has ratcheted up the erotic heat of the film. Davidtz offers a strong take on a scheming woman, one who is Fanny's intellectual equal but one who uses that intellect for personal gain. Nivola has the more difficult task of making a cad likable, and he proves a near miss. There is something lacking in his performance, and O'Connor overpowers him. Rather than functioning as her equal, he comes across as inferior.
Similarly, Jonny Lee Miller (so good as a swashbuckler in "Plunkett and Macleane") seems muted. He and O'Connor have many tender moments, as his Edmund is the only one at the titular estate who offers Fanny any real emotional support, but like Nivola, he fades in the light of her performance. Only when he has to make a stand for himself does his character seem to come alive, and by then, it's too little, too late.
Also notable in the supporting cast are the esteemed playwright Harold Pinter as the imperious and even lecherous landowner, the always marvelous Lindsay Duncan in a dual role as Fanny's impoverished mother who married for love and her unhappy sister who escapes in a world of opium, and Sheila Gish as Fanny's snobby aunt. Only James Purefoy seems underutilized as the roguish eldest son.
Austen purists will undoubtedly be upset by Rozema's alterations, but it must be remembered that changes she wrought were done to make a static work dramatic. She may have streamlined characters, jettisoned some plot lines and beefed up others (e.g., the issue of slavery and abolition, which are buried in the novel), but all was done with care and scholarship.
While this is the first Austen film to include a brief explicit sex scene, the director even trimmed that before the film's theatrical release. Working with an expert design team that included Director of Photography Michael Coulter, production designer Christopher Hobbs and costume designer Andrea Galer, Rozema has made a thoroughly enjoyable and fast-paced addition to the growing canon of Austen films.
*MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief violent images, sexual content and drug use.
Frances O'Connor: Fanny Price
Jonny Lee Miller: Edmund
Lindsay Duncan: Lady Bertram
Bruce Byron: Mrs. Price
James Purefoy: Tom Bertram
Alessandro Nivola: Henry Crawford
Embeth Davidtz: Mary Crawford
A Miramax presentation. Director Patricia Rozema. Screenplay Patricia Rozema and Maggie Wadey. Novel Jane Austen. Producer Sarah Curtis. Director of Photography Michael Coulter. Editor Martin Walsh. Music Lesley Barber. Production Designer Christopher Hobbs. Costume Designer Andrea Galer. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.