“Mansfield Park” is more drama than it is comedy so I’m wondering why the filmmakers are trying to pass it off as some brilliant Jane Austen comedy. It’s not.
It is, however, a compilation of Austen’s third novel and a variety of her personal journals to enhance the character of Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor), an impoverished girl from Portsmouth, England sent to live with her wealthy relatives in the upper class Mansfield Park.
She has come to the home of Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter) and Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan) as a servant yet lives a decent life where she is given the opportunity to read extensively and write to her heart’s content, something she does masterfully in secret journals and letters to her sister back in Portsmouth. Secluded in her attic room, she entertains the young master Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) with her stories and imagination while she’s able to avoid contamination by her self-centered and vain cousins Maria (Victoria Hamilton) and Julie (Justine Waddell). Older cousin Tom isn’t around much at this time.
Fanny is obviously smitten with Edmund. They are true soul mates, obvious from the very beginning when Fanny arrives at the age of ten. She grows to be a highly intelligent young woman, who’s outspoken, yet careful and is a keen discerner of character. All the while, Edmund remains her true supporter as she struggles to find a place in this “family” when straddling between servant or daughter or servant and sister. She doesn’t fit in and that’s made remarkably clear when a very charming brother-sister pair, Henry and Mary Crawford, come to visit from London.
Their presence turns the Bertram house upside down with sexual tension as Henry vies for any and every woman around, including the reluctant Fanny, and Edmund takes to Mary.
The story takes place in 1806 England and the antics of the Bertram household are set against larger and uglier events that were taking place during that time: grinding poverty for some and the slave trade that Sir Thomas engages in. Add to that, the woman as cattle scenario as Fanny fights against being “sold off” to Henry because back then, marriages were largely conveniences, made for practical reasons like money rather than love. Fanny, as Sir Thomas points out, is now eminently desirable and would do well to marry up to the Crawford household. Her resistance is described as willful, an insult to any man and is seen as a horrid quality in any woman. She now must make decisions that either keep her in a semblance of wealth or send her back to her rat-infested home in Portsmouth. Free woman, servant or slave, herself?
Fanny is a lovely character ably depicted by Frances O’Connor who reminds me of a lot of Barbara Hershey. Edmund has sincere concern for Fanny’s well being; one hopes that men like him really existed in this time period to save all those tormented women from a loveless, wretched life. The acting’s good, the script is okay, but the film seems rather long and without great interest. It just didn’t have the magnetism of “Sense and Sensibility”, but then, that was a lighter romance. This hovers on heavy social commentary interspersed among scenes of romantic gameplaying and marital confusion. A lofty goal, mostly successful, but nevertheless somewhat boring.
Lotta says “Mansfield Park” is just okay all around. I imagine diehard Jane Austen fans will love it, however. Perhaps it would be better to simply read the novel and other writings by and about Austen to get the true flavor behind the film and the lady herself!