Mansfield Park (1999)

Mansfield ParkCast: Frances O'Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Harold Pinter, Lindsay Duncan, Sheila Gish, James Purefoy, Hugh Bonneville, Justine Waddell, Victoria Hamilton.
Music by: Lesley Barber.
Cinematographer: Michael Coulter.
Screenwriter: Patricia Rozema (from the novel by Jane Austen).
Director: Patricia Rozema.

Grade: B

Review by Dana Knowles

It never hurts to remind ourselves of how far we've come (or not) since Jane Austen put pen to paper and gave her distinctive voice to women everywhere. This--more than anything--is what Mansfield Park has on its mind. An agreeable and reasonably charming fusion of the titular novel and Ms. Austen's personal writings, Patricia Rozema's film aims to illuminate the social issues at the heart of Austen's narrative efforts, particularly those concerning the narrow options that women have faced throughout human history. In addition to the expected themes of class and feminine repression, it addresses the role of slavery in wealth acquisition, which provides a more substantial context for the social mores on display, as well as a parallel to the more metaphorical "enslavement" of women in a society where lineage and marriage were the unquestioned arbiters of every girl's fate.O'Connor and Pinter

At the center of this tale is Fanny Price (played with considerable charisma and spunk by Frances O'Connor), a poor girl who has been shipped off to live with wealthy relatives. The Bertram clan--headed by Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter)--is of the idle rich variety, their wealth accrued (at least in part) via the thriving slave trade near the dawn of the 19th Century. Lady Bertram is the sister of Fanny's mother, and though conventional wisdom would deem her the lucky one, she exists in a drug-addled haze from morning to night. The Bertram children are a mixed bag. The eldest son/legal heir, Tom, drowns himself in alcohol to mitigate the anguish he feels at the unspeakable source of his impending fortune. The daughters, Julia and Maria, are giddy, girlish snobs in search of appropriately well-heeled husbands. The only normalcy (by today's standards) to be found is in second son Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), a self-effacing and pleasant young man with aspirations to a quiet life in the parsonage. Edmund quickly becomes Fanny's ally and best friend, recognizing in her the gifts that the rest of the world would never bother to look for. As is typical of an Austen story, we know instantly that they're destined to be together. The only question is how that will come to happen. Miller and O'Connor

The drama kicks into gear with the arrival of Mary and Henry Crawford (Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola), wealthy siblings whose sophistication and carefree joie de vivre pump life into the rather dull lives of the Bertrams. Mary immediately sets her sights on Edmund, much to the chagrin of Fanny. But rather than developing an explicit rivalry, the two charming women forge a friendship that verges on romance. This is partly facilitated by Henry's pursuit of Fanny, but stems mostly from their apparently genuine affection for one another. Trouble comes when Fanny declines Henry's marriage proposal, a decision so shockingly unfathomable to Lord Bertram that he exiles her back to the poverty of her immediate family, where he hopes she will come to see the error of her arrogance and short-sightedness. Only insanity or naiveté could move a girl of her class to eschew such a miraculous opportunity to live the "good life." But Fanny is bound by her love for Edmund and by her distrust of Henry's capacity for fidelity and authentic love. She feels she has no choice but to follow her heart, and thus she accepts the exile imposed.Alessandro Nivola

There are other dramatic twists, some of which play as convenient occurrances intended to manipulate the characters into the positions they most need to take. The shift in character that reveals the hidden--and less savory--nature of Mary Crawford feels particularly abrupt and unconvincing. And the family crisis that allows for the return of Fanny to the Bertram estate is only marginally less unconvincing. They feel like mechanical--as opposed to organic--"plot points," which they most certainly are.

There is much to admire in Mansfield Park. The production is handsomely staged and shot. The performances are mostly quite good (Davidtz, Nivola, Miller, Duncan) or genuinely memorable (O'Connor and Pinter). The story is adequately engaging, occasionally indulging in quirky humor that lightens the period mood with an air of wry modernity. The themes are interesting, if worn a bit too blatantly on the sleeve for my personal taste. Ultimately, however, Mansfield Park falls a bit flat. The central romance between Fanny and Edmund is devoid of the sense of repressed passion that is necessary to maintain a reasonable level of urgent concern while we await the obvious outcome. Edmund is simply too bland a character to evoke much in the way of emotion. We know he's right for Fanny. We want them to find a way to end up together. But we never yearn for that resolution. When it comes, it feels like we've simply passed onto the next logical step, and thus the film can properly end. What's missing is the sort of emotional engagement that gave depth and resonance to the respective plights of those sisters in Sense and Sensibility. There was no greater degree of doubt about how their fates would unfold, but that film gave us reason to care every step of the way. I liked Mansfield Park, but never surrendered to it. Instead, I found it to be a likable couple of hours spent with reasonably engaging people who pretty much ended up getting what they deserved. If that sounds a bit dispassionate, then I guess I've accurately conveyed my response.

Review © December 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Miramax. All rights reserved.


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