Writer-director Rozema reinvents 'Mansfield Park' heroine using the author herself as a template
The latest Jane Austen novel lovingly adapted to film, "Mansfield Park" features a predictably resolute heroine named Fanny Price, a 10-year-old girl from a poor family who is sent to live with wealthy relations at their country estate.
The first thing her aunt says to her is "Let's have a look at you...Well, I'm sure you have other qualities." When her uncle thinks she's out of earshot, he tells his daughters, "she's not your equal," and he insists she live in the servants' wing to prevent her from tempting her male cousins. Nonetheless, young Edmund takes a shine to her and makes her feel at home, which is the beginning of a life-long friendship.
Well, I think we all know where this is going. As witty and wildly engaging as Austen's coy 18th Century romances are, they're nothing if not predictable.
But not so fast. In this Austen outing, writer-director Patricia Rozema ("When Night Is Falling") has taken the intrepid liberty of instilling her take on Fanny Price (played at age 20 by Australian actress Frances O'Connor) with elements of Austen's own personality, as gleaned from the author's letters and journals.
As Fanny is a writer herself -- regaling her younger sister with lively tales of the goings on at Mansfield Park and ruminating on the business-like machinations of society marriage in pre-Victorian England -- she becomes more than just another Austen heroine. This Fanny Price is a symbol of the bridled frustration of all intelligent, independent women of her era.
O'Connor does a brilliant job playing Fanny's barely restrained passions as she walks a "Cinderella"-like line between family member and servant. "I suspect you're composed almost entirely of ready opinions not shared," she's told by an observant suitor, and it's true.
O'Connor is also quite astute at navigating Rozema's sometimes nontraditional script, which finds Fanny occasionally breaking the fourth wall and includes rather incongruous embellishments on the evils of the slave trade.
In keeping more with what's expected of Austen adaptations, "Mansfield Park" does feature a delightful cast of prim, eccentric and/or manipulative well-to-dos.
Her uncle, Sir Thomas (playwright Harold Pinter), is a grave, judgmental man who expects Fanny's obedience, even in matters of the heart. Her Aunt Norris (Sheila Gish) sees her as nothing more than a housemaid. When not putting Fanny down, her female cousins Maria and Julia (Victoria Hamilton and Justine Waddell) spend all their time scheming for husbands. Her male cousins -- Tom (James Purefoy), the rebellious, troubled one, and the aforementioned charmer Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) -- are more agreeable.
Then there's the seductive visitors from London, Henry (Alessandro Nivola) and Mary (Embeth Davitz) Crawford, a brother and sister duo with rather liberal views of relations between the sexes.
Something of a rogue, Henry Crawford becomes smitten with Fanny, of course, and she can't decide if she returns his feelings. Meanwhile Edmund has fallen under Mary's spell and Fanny finds herself strangely jealous.
Rozema's dry wit, effervescent dialogue and contemporary reinterpretations are often a refreshing change from the swoony, soft-peddling style of other Austen adaptations. But as smartly directed as it often is, the film has problems.
It inexplicably skips right over Fanny's teens and relegates some seemingly central characters (such as cousins Tom and Julia) to back-burner status. Even Edmund, ostensibly the romantic lead, is sorely underdeveloped.
The Crawfords are supposed to be subversive types who trifle with hearts for sport, but hardly any mention is made of their manipulative deviousness or their peccadilloes until the hurry-up epilogue that abruptly ends the movie.
Fanny's abolitionist bent -- and in fact the whole slavery angle -- also comes completely out of left field and feels wildly out of place.
This film is certainly a must-see for Austen aficionados and will probably play well to general audiences, too. But while I admire the creative, unconventional approach Rozema has taken, "Mansfield Park" just doesn't quite measure up to its period-perfect predecessors, like "Sense and Sensibility" and "Emma."