Mansfield Park (1999 film)

I had read about this version of – no good things, really, with the main complaints focusing on the inclusion of drawings of slaves being raped. A few months back I listed to an audiobook of Mansfield Park, and I believe that was when I moved this up the Netflix queue, and it came up a few nights ago.


In and of itself, as itself, I liked it. I liked the cast – a lot. (Two words: James Purefoy. One more word: underused.) I liked the writing. I liked the ruthlessness with which the whole drama of the play was cut – what seemed to take an excruciating age in the book was dealt with in – what, ten minutes? It looked good, it sounded good, and if I’d never read the book I would have said it was good.

However, as an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel – no. And no, and a thousand times no.

The core was there. Fanny is sent away from the home where she lives in squalor but with the siblings she loves to her aunt’s home, where she has everything she could want except for the easy affection she’s been used to. At Mansfield, however, she does have Edmund, at least, who – unlike his brother and sisters – notes that she is upset and tries to do something about it, and becomes Fanny’s playfellow. As they grow up, Fanny comes to love him as more than that, while Edmund remains stubbornly oblivious. Then a new pair of siblings blows into the neighborhood, and brings a seamy vein of raciness into their lives; shortly, the brother, Henry Crawford, is flirting heavily (at least) with Edmund’s sister Maria – already engaged to married to a Mr. Rushworth; somewhere around the time those two marry (which was because of which is perhaps debatable) Henry shifts his attentions to Fanny. Meanwhile Edmund is falling into the clutches of Mary Crawford and Fanny is miserable. Henry reforms and proposes; Fanny holds firm; Henry falls back into his old ways (with Maria), and all ends badly for the bad guys and wonderfully for the good guys, of course.

I disliked the way the whole storyline involving Henry’s courtship of Fanny ran in the book, and the movie actually managed to make it worse. In the book, I was frustrated because I came to loathe Edmund and root for Henry, and came to honestly believe that Henry loved Fanny and if she married him it would be the making of him. But her prissiness prevailed and she rejected him, and he sank into scandal, shame, and disgrace without a trace, and she wound up with that twit Edmund after all. Movie!Edmund wasn’t so bad, but he was still pretty damned wishy-washy. And Movie!Henry was lovely. Come on – here he sends Fanny a cart with fireworks and “doves” and a lovely (though garbled) message harking back to the piece of the novel they shared. It was massively romantic, and exuberant, and wonderful – and she was an ice cube.

Worst of all, here she accepts him. There’s a scene which the commentary indicates was meant to be funny, and which audiences apparently find funny, but which made me a little sick: Fanny is reeling from Henry’s attentions, and her mother – worn and old before her time from the bearing and caring for about a hundred children in scraping poverty – comes to her and reminds her that she married for love. Mr. Price bellows for her from offscreen, presumably to begin work on the next child. How is this funny? True love is supposed to be the answer. That scene right there is the horror twenty years after the romance novel ends. It makes me shudder.

Following this, Fanny accepts him, and what follows would (had I not been sitting there saying “Wait, what?”) have been a very sweet scene. And a minute later she tells him, basically, “JK! LOL”. I don’t know if Book!Henry was altogether a sympathetic character (though he genuinely grows and changes and becomes more so as the book goes on), but Movie!Henry was, and I felt terribly sorry for both of them. Stupid Fanny. No wonder the boy goes off and sleeps with the first attainable (as opposed to available) woman he can find. A review I stumbled on speaks of Fanny’s hypocrisy, and I have to agree; Henry can be a cad, but he’s always honest about it. Fanny, particularly the film’s version, is much less so. She claims she is rejecting Henry because his changeability frightens her. No, she’s dumping him because she’s stuck on Edmund, however unavailable he is.

Tom’s transformation from book to movie was fascinating. Austen’s Tom is a pompous ne’er-do-well, focused solely on the trifecta of drink and gambling and women. He is a rake – but still (compared to Henry Crawford at least) respectable. This Tom, though, seems to be drinking because he needs to drown his sorrows regarding his family’s involvement in slavery. He is righteously angry with his father, and despises him because of his ownership of slaves and treatment of his property. Over his sickbed Lord Thomas talks about how as a little boy Tom played at being Sir Tom, a knight on errantry, desiring a quest to fight evil. My eyebrows went up. In the context of the movie, it was very good; in the context of adaptation, it was terrible.

Fanny’s character was made over for the film, as well. In my review of the book, I was a bit contemptuous of her. All right, I couldn’t stand her: “Her entire skeletal system seems to be made of cartilage. … I think in a confrontation Fanny might simply cry, and then faint. Not a character much admired in this day and age.” Patricia Rozema’s Fanny has more spunk. The writer conflated her with Jane Austen, creating out of the amorphous mass of Fanny-ness a writer whose output is actually that of Miss Austen’s youth, and whose reactions seem to be those which it could be imagined would be Miss Austen’s, were she dropped into the story. Austen’s Fanny is charitable to all (except Henry), even Mrs. Norris; Rozema’s Austen is sardonic on the subject of her aunt, and her sister tells her she has a tongue like a guillotine. Wow.

In the commentary the writer/director Rozema references scholarly examinations of the book and their discussions of the seamy sexuality throughout it. I didn’t really see it, as I recall. In the book. In the movie, it’s so in-your-face that it’s impossible to avoid. A line from the first few minutes after Fanny arrives at Mansfield has Sir Thomas asking if it’s a good idea to have her in the same house as his boys. The relationship between Edmund and Fanny is slanted just so to make it look a little less than wholesome – odd, because in that period it was more than acceptable for cousins to marry. Mary physically handles Fanny a bit more than is proper (and Edmund only agrees to act when he sees one example of this); Sir Thomas seems a littttttle too pleased to see Fanny; Mr. Price all but ogles her when she goes home. I’m surprised I saw no subtle hints that Tom and Yates weren’t secret lovers, or that Rushworth was prime for cuckolding because he was gay. It felt like the film could at any moment break out into Edwardian Romance Novel 101 – oh wait. Maria and Henry. It kind of did.

What I loved about this film was – really, everything except the storyline. It was beautifully filmed and scored. And the cast was wonderful. I thought Frances O’Connor was really, really lovely as Fanny, both in looks – not conventionally gorgeous, but so very attractive – and in talent. Alessandro Nivola had me rooting for Henry even more than I did in the book, even knowing what was going to happen (and not). Some of the stellar cast was severely underused, though. I already muttered about James Purefoy – and that was a criminal lack of screentime, that was – but really most of the cast had little to do. I don’t recall Justine Waddell as Julia having more than a couple of lines. (For the game of Place the Face I like to play, there were Purefoy and Lindsay Duncan from Rome (among many other things), Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey, and Victoria Hamilton from quite a number of BBC productions. And Fanny’s sister Julia was a young and round-faced Sophia Miles, or Mme. Pompadour from Doctor Who.) I liked the brisk pace; I suffered through parts of the book, and was happy with a rather severe abridgement here.

What I hated about this film was, apparently, what the writer/director was proudest of: the issue of slavery. For fun, I did a search on an online text of the novel, and the word “slave” appears twice. One of those is as part of the phrase “slave of opportunity”. The other is a passing mention about the slave-trade, which does pass and is never heard from again. Was Mansfield Park built on the blood of slaves? With Sir Thomas’s dealings in Antigua, yes. Was this a factor in any way in the novel? No. Was it a factor in the movie being made? Absolutely: Rozema said in the commentary that the scene in which Fanny looks through Tom’s pornographic sketchbook o’ horrors – much more lingeringly filmed than I’d anticipated – was what made her decide to do the movie. Otherwise, she said, she “wouldn’t have bothered”. Hell of a thing, when a scene that bears not the remotest resemblance to the original work is what prompts someone to make an adaptation.

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2 Responses to Mansfield Park (1999 film)

  1. I love this review of the movie.

    It’s funny because two of the things you mention, the slavery issue and the Henry/Maria romp in bed, are what initially turned me off from wanting to read the book. I, mistakenly, thought that Mansfield Park was written as bawdy as this movie adaptation appeared to be and I was a little shocked.

    Now I can continue reading the rest of Jane’s books with a clear conscience.

  2. stewartry says:

    Oh, no! I think Jane would have been run out of town on a rail if she’d been as explicit as the movie! The book was not the best Austen (I was bored solid in a few places), but it was above reproach. Maria and Henry do run off together, but there’s not even an ankle to be seen in the book itself.

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