Well, here we have many people’s least favourite Jane Austen novel and two adaptations which are also not on the top of most lists. Not that the novel or the adaptations are not enjoyable...well, you know what I mean or you will after you see them.
Fanny Price, the heroine of the book is a rather quiet, mousy, stubborn and highly moral girl, who is hard to love readily, but she definitely grows on one, as she does on Edmund Bertram. This works well in novel form but is difficult to get a film audience to hang in there until the story develops.
The first recent adaptation, from 1999 tries to get around this problem by making Fanny a sort of copy of Jane Austen herself, feisty and a budding authoress. To say this was inspired by Jane Austen and her works, rather than an adaptation of Mansfield Park would be very fair. It is almost along the lines of Becoming Jane in the way that it blends fiction with fact. So the only way to enjoy the 1999 Frances O’Connor Mansfield Park is to forget the novel. Truly. It will also work better if you have not recently finished reading the novel, so that the departures will not seem so glaring.
If you take it for what it is, basically, a “What if Jane Austen was plopped into Fanny Price’s body?” exercise, you will likely enjoy the ride. Frances O’Connor is winning as Fanny, Jonny Lee Miller is an engaging Edmund and the two sisters are sufficiently shallow to serve as contrast to Fanny’s depths. Bridget Jones fans will recognize the actress playing Mary Crawford as Embeth Davidtz, who played the hateful Natasha. I loved her costumes and her acting in this film but I must stay true to Bridget and hate her otherwise, on principle. I did like the way they made Henry Crawford very likeable and the way they had Fanny accept him one day and reject him the next, a la Harris Bigg-Wither. It took her inner conflict about him to a new level and truly, who among us would not have run off with him, as Alessandro Nivola plays Henry as the bad boy that girls love to fall in love with. But not Fanny Price however. She foresees the evil that would befall her as his wife and knows that their morals would never mesh. Sigh. Oh well, Edmund is cute too, and oh so reliable (and those lips!).
I did think the Mrs. Norris character was well played. I always laugh when I think of JK Rowling’s tip of the hat to Jane Austen in naming the nosy, trouble making cat in Harry Potter after Mrs. Norris in MP. I did however think that making Lady Bertram an opium addict instead of just lazy was going a little far. The slave trade story line was another non Austen twist and I suppose is one of those dirty little secrets that Jane Austen could only allude to obliquely.
Anyway, just take this film for what it is, and it won’t raise your blood pressure. The opening credits state openly that it is “Based on Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park and on her letters and early journals”. Enjoy the scenery, such as Charlestown, Cornwall standing in for Portsmouth which gives the feel of Fanny’s maritime upbringing. Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire as Mansfield Park is beautiful and intimidating although the room used for the sitting room seems cavernous and hallway-like in it’s lack of intimacy. The music is quite lovely and adds to the atmosphere. Other than Sir Thomas and Mr. Price leering at and/or feeling up poor Fanny (which gave me the willies), I rather enjoyed this film.
Now, on to the newer version, the ITV 2007 version starring Billie Piper and Blake Ritson. I was prepared to hate this one from what I had read on IMDb, but I didn’t hate it. “I do not attempt to deny that I think very highly of it, that I esteem it... that I like it”. Yes, it is fluffy and cute and sexes up (!?) the role of Fanny Price by casting the British equivalent of Britney Spears. Yes, her straggly bleached blonde hair and dark brows are distracting (especially when mimicked on the poor dear who plays young Fanny). Yes, there is an alarming amount of cleavage for a Jane Austen film. However, considering they were trying to fit a very long book into two hours, and apparently on a tight budget, I think they did a fair job. Much snipping and condensing of plot will always take place in such a short adaptation. I did enjoy the presence of Fanny’s brother the sailor William Price, as he is much more important to her than sister Susan who was left out of this version. His explanation of a battle at the dinner table using salt shakers was reminiscent of the scene from Bend it Like Beckham, and very endearing.
It was hard to judge whether Billie Piper’s acting was any good in the first half as all she did was stand in the corner with her lips wrapped around her teeth and peer out from under her bushy dark brow. Her fellow actors were good, especially Hayley Atwell as Mary Crawford who was delightfully scheming. And I love Jemma Redgrave, but when the DVD jacket touted “starring Jemma Redgrave (Bramwell) as Fanny’s observant aunt” I almost fell off my chair. Again, you have to forget how Jane Austen created the character and just enjoy Ms. Redgrave’s more wide awake interpretation of Lady Bertram. Mrs. Norris wasn’t nearly mean enough in this one either. Come on, the cat in Harry Potter was wayyyyy nastier.
I know, you are thinking, I thought she said she kind of liked it. And I did, truly. Perhaps it was the lowered expectations from all the reviews, or maybe I was just in a good mood. Cutting out the Susan character and the location of Portsmouth were not really distressing (although punishing Fanny by leaving her alone in a large country house without any tiresome relations is not going to make her want to marry Henry). And the dancing on the lawn, although odd, can be forgiven. But the scene when Edmund is struck by a thunderbolt of love, not 3 minutes after learning that his adored Mary is actually a cold hearted, conniving b___, and utters the line “Fanny, I have always loved...(wait for it)...this room.” (?!?!) Really! Where is Andrew Davies when you really need him? Poor Blake Ritson. He is very cute however and the young girls seem quite happy with his dishy Edmund.
But, the scenery is gorgeous, the actors are fun to watch, and sometimes it is actually enjoyable to shout “Nooooo.......” at the screen in mock disgust.
So, if you haven’t seen this one yet, lower your expectations and enjoy it for what it is. Jane Austen-ish and very pretty to look at. And feel free to shout at the screen at any time. It’s very cathartic.