- rated - SIMMERING
No Merchant/ Ivory treatment here
Director Patricia Rozema, the Canadian feminist director of I Heard the
Mermaids Singing (1987) and When Night is Falling (1995) has attempted
something different with this film. It is not your stereotypical
Merchant Ivory treatment of a hallowed nineteenth century novel. It is
not a BBC adaptation - although the closest thing to it, because of its
"modernity," is the BBC's TV mini-series of Vanity Fair (Mark Mundon,
1998). It is not even an Emma Thompson/ Ang Lee triumph. It is
something new, in more ways than one.
First: the story. Rozema has adapted the story of Mansfield Park but
interpolated material from Jane Austen's diaries and other writings.
This results in a few changes of emphasis as well as plot. For example,
our heroine Fanny Price (Australia's Frances O'Connor) is much more of
a positive figure of action than a mere passive commentator. The
Bertram family's Estates in the West Indies (referred to only in
passing in the novel) now play a much more central role in the plot and
in the film's political themes. And Fanny's sister Susan (Sophia Myles)
in the film should really be a brother.
The other major change Rozema makes is a change of style. Although
there are plenty of Opulent costumes and furnishings, Mansfield Park is
actually mostly in ruins. There are bare walls, and sparsely furnished
rooms, so that we realise at al times that we are not in a fantasy
world of cardboard cut-out "historical characters, but in a real world
of red-blooded people. That's another thing Rozema has done which Jane
Austen fans may not appreciate very much - she shows the sex which
people spend so much time skirting around. And when you see it you
think - yes, well they must have been doing it, even in Jane Austen!
Bringing Fanny to the foreground enables Rozema to examine more acutely
the social conventions which so restricted the lives of women in those
days. There's much to interest the modern viewer, and many issues that
are still alive in today's world. Only one thing strikes a false note.
And for me it was an annoying matter. If Fanny Price is so
independent-minded and creative, and free-spirited, and clever - even
prepared to flout convention and refuse the hand of a handsome, rich
suitor who seems genuinely to love her, WHY can't she tell her true
love Edmund that she loves him? It is infuriating. She's smart enough
to realise Edmund loves her (Hell, we all realise it instantly!). She
knows she'd be good for him. So why can't she drop him a hint?
That's a real problem with the changes Rozema has made, I'm afraid. It
undermines the key arc of the narrative. But I still managed to enjoy
the film, and especially the performances of Frances O'Connor, Harold
Pinter (as Sir Thomas Bertram - Pinter started out as an actor, and it
shows) and Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz as Henry and Mary
One last quibble: no one in the film ever seems to refer to Fanny
without using her surname - but I kept thinking of Fanny Brice. Most