In a perfect world, it would be possible to make a faithful film of Jane Austen's most serious novel. But then, in a perfect world, there would no 'Fanny Wars,' no serious disagreement a person to notice the morally dubious and questionable. She would be seen as certain to grow up, married to Edmund Bertram or not, to be Joan Hickson's redoubtable Miss Marple. (I am imagining, of course, a perfect world that would not be so perfect that the contingencies that make novels and mysteries interesting would not be inconceivable.)
The wiser course for a filmmaker working in our very imperfect world would be to give Mansfield Park a pass. Fanny Price is too retiring a character to carry a motion picture; she is modest, humble, reserved, and she bears the mistreatment of her Aunt Norris without comment. Most contemporary viewers would want to strangle her. That's just how movies are, in the Age of Julia Roberts. Patricia Rozema, however, had what I think is a very clever idea. Why not make Fanny a little more like - Julia Roberts! Just a little. Nothing too demotic. And how would she do that, you ask? Well, she would give Fanny Price the wit and sideways self-assertiveness of Jane Austen herself.
Once you realize that this is what the writer and director of Mansfield Park has done, the movie becomes interesting and not worrisome. You stop worrying about how bad it's going to have to be, because you can just imagine Miss Austen herself approving the project. And you see what's going on almost immediately, because the film's Fanny is always making up romances to tell to her sister Susan, and hardly has she grown up to be Frances O'Connor than she's writing a cheeky history of England, just as Jane Austen did as a girl. (How I'd like to read it.) Ms O'Connor is quite brilliant at registering her low regard for misbehavior without saying a word, or at least without speaking up. She retains not only Fanny's outward circumstances - the eldest product of a philoprogenitive mésalliance brought up in a rude household, whisked off as a charity case to her Aunt Bertram's great house (the only property to give its name to a finished Austen novel) and raised as a somewhat luckier Cinderella - but Fanny's moral character as well. The film's Fanny may hone her sarcasm, but she remains as opposed as her original to the amateur production of Lover's Vows. It is true that, in a moment of most un-Fanny-like weakness, she accepts the suit of Henry Crawford, but it doesn't last overnight; this is really a weak moment on the film's part, for brief engagement only muddles things briefly. Once Mary Crawford reveals her moral character, in a scene that's substantially true to the book and quite awfully chilling, Edmund realizes that he has always loved the undemonstrative but excellent Fanny.
Aside from this tweaking of Fanny's character in what looks to me like the direction of authenticity, there is another that is not so admirable. Clearly under the influence of the buzz, if not the text itself, of the late Edward Said's Orientalism, Ms Rozema sexes up Sir Thomas Bertram by dragging in the cruelties of slavery at the Antiguan source of his fortune, up to and including a drawing by Tom Bertram of his father's being fellated. Horrors! This 'correcting' of Jane Austen's alleged lapse - slavery is in fact briefly acknowledged in the novel - injects very indigestible material into the story and queers the movie's dry comic tone. Sympathizers with Professor Said's sense of injustice would be right to consider the interpolation a bogus whitewash; Jane Austen herself was certainly never politically correct.
The denizens of Mansfield Park, however, appear in very high fidelity. Lindsay Duncan, against all expectations, makes a wonderfully droopy Lady Bertram (she also plays Fanny's mother, an exercise proving what a difference couture and coiffure can make in a woman), and Harold Pinter, of all people, makes a magnificent baronet. Jonny Lee Miller is an actor I hope to see more of; I spotted him in the "Rent Boys" episode of Prime Suspect, and I look forward to seeing him in the coming Woody Allen film. Victoria Hamilton (Maria), Justine Waddell (Julia), Hugh Bonneville (Mr Rushworth) and James Purefoy are all fine as the young people of Mansfield Park, all clearly innocent weaklings who will prove defenseless against the ruthless sophistication of Alessandro Nivola's Henry Crawford and Embeth Davidtz's Mary. I'm mildly curious as to why more wasn't done with Aunt Norris, for she's a great figure of fun in the book, a self-righteous monstrosity cut from the same cloth as Emma's Mrs Elton; Sheila Gish never works up more than mild irritation. The choice of great house for background is odd; the inspiration for the novel is known to have been a straightforward Georgian pile, not some sprawling Jacobean mini-fortress along the lines of Knole.
Ms Rozema's film is as true to the novel as any two-hour film can be to a novel of several hundred pages. And there's no denying that Jane Austen charges those pages with a pining - for home, for Mansfield Park, for Edmund Bertram - that makes the novel feel somewhat longer than it actually is - and that no film could possibly support. (Movies don't do deprivation very well, at least when it's of the emotional kind). But in the end the question of fidelity is minor. Films are in no way substitutes for the books they adapt: I doubt that many movies have inspired non-readers to change their ways, and readers never need much encouragement in the first place. This film of Mansfield Park is probably not a good model for other adaptations, but on its own terms it is surprisingly successful. (November 2004)
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