18 December 1999 | vonnie-4
A lesser Austen is still an Austen
Having read and loathed the book (relatively speaking of course; I usually love Austen), I went into the theater with no small trepidation. The book "Mansfield Park" has a singularly unappealing protagonist in Fanny Price, a simpering and timid milksop, which was a big shock after "Pride and Prejudice" whose Elizabeth Bennett is surely one of the most enchanting fictional heroines ever. The book is also dense and long without the trademark Austen lively wit. And then, there is the confusing "play within play" plot which further muddles the story.
OK, I got that off my chest. Phew. Now about the movie. I enjoyed it very much in its own fashion. It is rather unfaithful to the book, other than the general plot line. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In this free adaptation of Austen via Rozema, Fanny is portrayed as a determined woman, of intelligence, strength of character and mischief. She is more Austen and Elizabeth Bennett than the Fanny from the book, and her appeal is magnified by the performance of the wonderfully expressive new Australian actress, Frances O'Connor. They also canned the whole thing about the play (just barely skimmed over), thank God. The story moves along briskly, starting with the poor relation Fanny coming to live with the rich Bertrams, then making friends with the second son Edmund whom she comes to love as she matures into young womanhood. As with all Austen novels, it is about an independent-minded woman who finds her way into a wedded bliss, through many trials and tribulations. Between Fanny and her heart's desires lay obstacles, mainly in the form of a very attractive but amoral pair of brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford. Mary sets her sight on Edmund, and Henry, although initially interested in the empty-brained Bertram sisters, starts pursuing Fanny. The chase begins as a challenge, but gradually turns into something resembling a genuine feeling. In Rozema's hand, Henry is a scoundrel but is made rather appealing and sympathetic, someone who gives the annoyingly decent Edmund a fair competition. Fanny almost gives into him (not so in the novel) and her resolution to hold onto her true love is made more courageous because of Henry's appeal.
The movie is lovely to look at, and the music is appropriately frothy. The performances are variable, with the clear distinction in the outstanding Ms. O'Connor. Embeth Davitz's turn as mercenary Mary is chilling, and Harold Pinter is excellent as the mercurial Sir Bertram, who is simultaneously affable and brutal. I had the most problems with Johnny Lee Miller's Edmund, whose wooden delivery made me wonder why he had Fanny's devotion.
The film's not a masterpiece by any stretch (and is inferior to SENSE AND SENSIBILITY in wit and to PERSUASION in heart), but nonetheless very enjoyable. A lesser Austen is still an Austen, I guess. The film also has a modern sensibility that's sometimes jarring. There is a very 20th century outrage in slavery, quirky pauses in camera work, Fanny talking directly to the camera (tricky but it works) and even a hint of lesbianism that's rather uncalled forAt any rate, it's entertaining, different, and worth the price of admission just to see the luminous Frances O'Connor. I feel I owe her a small debt of gratitude for making Fanny finally palatable, and for that, I expect grand things from this actress.