‘Austen-tacious’ Adaptation: Mansfield Park (1999)

Okay so playing on the words audacious and ostentatious may be a little much – let’s just say that the 1999 adaptation of Austen’s Mansfield Park is certainly a different take on the piece.

However, if taken exclusively on its own merit, I found it an engaging and entertaining viewing experience. Normally, I am a little sensitive (and critical) of the cinematic liberties taken with books that I cherish (e.g., 1940 MGM Pride and Prejudice). But for some reason, probably because it was so well executed, Mansfield Park receives a special dispensation in my book.

Plot-wise, the film version is more ‘loosely based on’ than a facsimile of the source material; in the end, the finished product comes across as more of a social justice commentary/female empowerment piece, as envisioned by writer/director Patricia Rozema (Kit Kittredge: An American GirlGrey Gardens).

The principal cast features Frances O’Connor (Fanny Price), Embeth Davitz (Mary Crawford), Lindsay Duncan (in dual roles of Mrs. Price and Lady Bertram), Alessandro Nivola (Henry Crawford), Jonny Lee Miller (Edmund Bertram) and Harold Pinter (Lord Bertram).

The basic fact that Fanny Price is sent away from a life of poverty in Portsmouth to be brought up by her wealthy aunt and uncle is one element that remains intact from text to screen.

Also consistent is that within the household, Fanny holds an inferior position to that of her cousins (Tom, Edmund, Maria, Julia). Tom, Maria and Julia are spoiled and frivolous, but it is Edmund, the gentle soul whose calling is the church, who shows any kindness to Fanny.

However, unlike Austen’s shy and retiring Fanny, Rozema has made her Fanny witty, self-assured and one who gives her opinions very decidedly.  In many respects, these are aspects taken from the life of the author (Jane Austen) herself.

But I digress – back to the story. Years pass and Lord Bertram, must travel to Antigua on an urgent business matter. This event, combined with  the arrival of the worldly Crawfords (Mary and Henry), and the return of reckless Tom and his desire to put on a performance of Lovers’ Vows, throw Mansfield and its inhabitants’ into total chaos. Fanny is way in as all that is happening around her.

Aside from the changing of Fanny’s nature, another deviating element in this adaptation is the depiction of some social ills, as seen in Lady Bertram’s use of drugs and what some have described as a homoerotic element to the relationship between Mary Crawford and Fanny Price.

Perhaps the most pronounced, and startling insertion into the film is the subplot of the ills of slavery. This storyline finds its way into Mansfield’s drawing room conversations as well as serving as a means of dividing Tom Bertram and his father.

These modern touches to Mansfield Park may have turned some people off, but I for one, really enjoyed seeing a period piece with some contemporary ’embellishments;’ they were well written and convincingly delivered by the actors.

Have you seen this version of Mansfield Park? If so, what did you think of it?

Comments

  1. I remember absolutely HATING this movie, and I hadn’t even read the book yet. I suspect that’s more down to Frances O’Connor’s performance than anything else (whatever movie she’s in, she always seems to be playing a character from another century. the WRONG century).

    Your review makes me want to revisit it, but then again, I don’t care for Mansfield Park in general, even in novel form.

    • Happy New Year!

      I had always been intrigued by this film because it kept on showing up in my Recommended Lists. But I passed on it time and time again. Then I saw the most recent adaptation of Mansfield Park with Billie Piper (Rose from Doctor Who) and while I am a fan of hers I did not like that more literal adaptation. So went back and watched this version, let it marinate for a while and came to the conclusion above.

      Sounds like your reaction is my reaction to the 1940 version of P&P.

    • I have not seen a lot of stuff from Frances O’Connor’s filmography – well nothing that sticks out really. There was that ‘Book of Love.’ Maybe one day I will want to relive that experience.

  2. I actually LOVE this one though I found out later that people hated this because it’s not very faithful to Austen’s novel. I do agree if we’re willing to overlook that part, this film is a good one. I LOVE Frances O’Connor as Fanny, she is just so amiable. I was a bit creeped out by the homosexual overtone between Fanny and Mary Crawford (that scene after the rain when Mary asked Fanny to come in). I mean there is no way Austen would have it filmed that way. Of course then I found out the director Rozema is a lesbian. Well that explains it. I still enjoy it despite that though, and Alessandro Nivola is quite attractive as Henry Crawford 😀

    • Having never read the book and having the Billie Piper version in my head, I felt something was afoot whenthe topic of slavery and the Bertrams. Austen was never directly concerned with the world around her (well at least in the novels she wasn’t). The treatment had a very modern feel to it. That said, I still don’t mind her re-imagining of the source material. I do wonder if Rozema placed the characters in a modern setting, would the response have been so negative.

      • To answer your last question “I do wonder if Rozema placed the characters in a modern setting, would the response have been so negative…” No I don’t think it would. In fact some reviewers say that if this were NOT an Austen adaptation, it would’ve been totally ok and the characters are quite engaging. I do still like it despite some minor quibbles.

  3. On its own, it’s a charming period piece. But as one of the few fans of the book, I found the destruction of Fanny Price a travesty. What I like about the character Fanny Price is her quiet, slightly socially awkward disposition, yet she is strong in her convictions. The film version of Fanny Price might as well been renamed Elizabeth Bennet. I don’t think the one with Billie Piper was much better. This is one of the Jane Austen novels that I would love to seen readapted as a TV miniseries with a better Fanny Price.

    • Great points Sherry. I have not read the book so I do not have a picture of Fanny in my mind.
      Like I said in the comments above, I like Billie Piper , but this adaptation of Mansfield was just blech.

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