(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: When a spirited young woman, Fanny Price, is sent away to live on the great country estate of her rich cousins, she’s meant to learn the ways of proper society. but while Fanny learns “their” ways, she also enlightens them with a wit and sparkle all her own.
– From DVD Production Notes
I wasn’t aware of this, but Mansfield Park is the least liked of Jane Austen’s works, particularly among her fans. Its heroine, Fanny Price, is considered annoying, timid and uninteresting. Austen’s own mother called her “insipid.”
I’ve tried to read Mansfield Park, but as I’ve mentioned here and here, I can’t read Jane Austen. I’ve tried several times. (Note: I have seen the more straight-forward 2007 adaptation, though, and see the point.) I do, however, appreciate adaptations of Austen’s work, especially when they are given more scope, depth and are much more about the unsaid than what is spoken. That is exactly what director Patricia Rozema does here.
If the literary version of Fanny Price is slight and too “Mary Sue” for most, how can you change her while remaining true to the author? Rozema chose to broaden the character by borrowing from the woman who wrote her. Austen’s early stories, letters and journal entries are part of Fanny’s dialogue and creative output. She is given more dimension because of this and comes across as more self-assured, witty and gutsy than her original.
In short, Fanny is much closer to Henry Crawford’s hypothesis: “You are almost entirely composed of ready opinions not yet shared.” To a viewer this is very apparent. There is a sharp divide between the Fanny who has been conditioned by her surroundings and the private Fanny no one has “discovered.” She is a girl who is much smarter, stronger and with more conviction than she seems.
I like this take on the character. Fanny (played by Frances O’Connor) reminds me of the quieter people who are passed over in life. Oftentimes there is a lot more to them than others give them credit for.
The reason Fanny remains “invisible” is quite obvious. She is poor and the eldest daughter of nine children, then shipped off to live with rich people who are, for the most part, completely terrible. Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter) is an absentee father and a prejudiced, pompous slave owner. His wife, Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan), is oblivious to nearly everything and constantly strung out on opium. Her other aunt, Mrs. Norris (Sheila Gish), simply hates Fanny for reasons that are never explained.
The children are also a strange mix. The eldest, Tom (James Purefoy) is an alcoholic and all around screw-up. The girls, Julia (Justine Waddell) and Maria (Victoria Hamilton) are spoiled and self-involved.
Of course- in classic Austen style- there’s the exception. That would be the second eldest son, Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), whom the internet continues to moon over.
Personally, I always think of Jonny Lee Miller as Sick Boy in Trainspotting (1996) but he sells it here. Miller has range. This is the movie that made me realize that.
At the center of this dysfunctional family Fanny is often found sitting on a chair, reading a book and forbidden from talking. Of course things need to be shaken up, but not just within the boundaries Austen has provided. Rozema plumbs deeper, particularly the Bertram family’s connection to slavery and the sexual undertones of the book.
This begins with the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz, respectively), who arrive at Mansfield one unremarkable afternoon. To say the least things change.
Sex has entered the story, although it remains between the lines. Most of this is communicated with actions instead of words, ranging from the flirtatious (Mary Crawford exercising her charisma on anyone and everyone) to the perverse (Lord Bertram’s objectification of his niece).
It’s done subtly and well, although there is the exception of Maria and Henry’s car crash of a relationship.
But here’s the thing. The Crawfords are the most fascinating people in this version of Park. As characters they aren’t black and white, which are the usual parameters for an Austen character. It’s usually quite clear whether you should like someone she writes or not. But not here. In this case the Crawfords could be considered a “necessary evil,” propelling the plot forward. I would argue that they never meant to hurt anyone and simply saw things from another point of view. The effect they have on the others is as beneficial as it is damaging.
For example, it’s notable that Henry Crawford is the first person who notices Fanny and questions her placement in the house. He sees her potential, and in recognizing and falling in love with her he makes others take notice as well.
Unfortunately Henry’s problem is that he can’t (or won’t) change, although he tries. This makes him more complex than the usual “rake”- as Fanny puts it- and without him the family dynamic would have remained the same. Fanny may have never been let out into society or considered a prospect for marriage. She could still be sitting in her chair and remaining silent, unknown and overlooked by those around her.
Still, Fanny is sharp enough to know that Henry’s main concern is “in being loved, not in loving.” Her refusal to marry him nearly ruins her life. It’s a test of her mettle, and that’s only the beginning. The rest of the family is tested as well. There is adultery, scandal, illness and a revelation no one sees coming: Lord Bertram is a torturer and rapist.
Although this is a departure from the novel it makes complete sense. Bertram’s treatment of the women in his household (namely: objects) and his estrangement from Tom take on a deeper meaning. This discovery reforms him and changes things for the better, but is still disturbing as hell. It’s a reminder of the time- namely, a white person can reform him/herself without punishment or questioning. A guilty conscience is penance enough, regardless of the human cost. In the end we never find out what becomes of the slaves in Antigua. Still, I can’t help but think about them and what is implied.
As uncomfortable as this is, it makes Park more ambiguous and closer to reality. Many things remain unresolved or open for discussion. Fanny repeats herself as she closes the film: “It could have all turned out differently, I suppose… but it didn’t.” It seems painfully true, since so much of the plot hinges on chance.
While rediscovering this film I’ve realized I could write much more about it. Park is its own nuanced and complicated little universe. The good stuff is in a line reading or a detail you might miss until your third, fourth or fifth viewing, much like Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995). The characters are complex. The scenes are poignant and funny, not to mention visually clever. A moment’s subtext can be interpreted several ways, making it all the more fun.
And then there are things that never change no matter how many times I see it. The score is perfect. So is Hugh Bonneville, playing Maria’s empty-headed but hilarious fiance/husband, Mr. Rushworth. His performance is brilliant and his hair is simply amazing. This character is miles away from what you’re used to seeing on Downton Abbey.
Also, despite the fact I can’t read Austen, Park has some of the best quotes I’ve ever heard from her:
“Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.”
“Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint.”
“Life seems nothing more than a quick succession of busy nothings.”
Those lines may as well include “happily ever after.” In true Austen form, Fanny Price finds her place in the world, as well as love and acceptance. What else could be expected for her?
In this version of Park it seems deserved. In her own quiet, steadfast way, I imagine Fanny Price carrying on. She may not be the most liked character in Austen’s works, but I believe her experiences are worth a look.
(NOTE: I have skipped reviewing the two previous DVDs in my collection, Melancholia and Martha Marcy May Marlene because I’ve reviewed them already on this site. Don’t want to leave them in the cold, though. They still need to be recognized as part of this collection, even if they are just linked…)