From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s third novel was published in 1814. It’s reception by critics and readers has been mixed—not as light, bright, and sparkling as Pride and Prejudice nor as poignant and romantic as Persuasion. It is a complex story about identity, self-worth, and moral fortitude. It’s heroine Fanny Price has been criticized as being weak and timid, its hero Edmund Bertram as too biddable, and the secondary characters as corrupt and morally bankrupt. Ouch. That is quiet an introduction for a first-time reader to absorb. It is also one of the reasons why movie adaptations are difficult to pull off. Condensing Austen’s largest novel into a 90 minute or 2 hour screen drama is problematic. Now the new PBS & ITV adaptation is here for us to deconstruct. Let’s see how this Mansfield Park plays out.
This adaptation presents a large and handsome cast portraying Austen’s complicated characters including the heroine Fanny Price (Billie Piper), a poor relation conscripted as a child into the household of her wealthy and privileged aunt and uncle, Lady (Jemma Redgrave) and Sir Thomas Bertram (Douglas Hodge) of Mansfield Park. By age eighteen, Fanny is basically a glorified servant to the family. Her indolent cousins: heir apparent and gambling boozer Tom (James D’Arcy), spoiled sisters Maria (Michelle Ryan) and Julia Bertram (Catherine Steadman), and her horrid Aunt Norris rule her world. The only one on the straight and narrow among this tribe is our pious hero Edmund Bertram (Blake Ritson), Fanny’s only friend and love interest. Enter two scheming siblings: acerbic Mary (Hayley Atwell) trolling for a rich husband and her hedonistic brother Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) determined to make Fanny fall in love with him to “make a small whole in her heart,” and you have all the ingredients for an interesting story.
Jane Austen Lite
So much of the original plot has been eliminated that after the first fifteen minutes I put aside my expectations of re-visiting my memories of Jane Austen’s prose and attempted to enjoy the essence of the plot and characters. Given the restriction of time for this adaptation director Ian B. MacDonald whips along at a frenetic pace touching on themes and condensing all of it’s action to one beautiful location, the house and grounds of Mansfield Park. Gone are the neighboring homes of the rectory of Mrs. Grant where the Crawford’s reside, the cottage of Mrs. Norris, Sotherton Court the estate of Mr. Rushworth, and the Price family residence in Portsmouth. One can only assume that these deletions were agreeable to the budget. Ack! I felt like I was on a Jane Austen restricted diet.
Standouts and Failures
The majority of actors were well cast with only a few exceptions. I tried to like Billie Piper as Fanny, unfortunately she had so little to say that I am not sure if I should blame it on her acting or the script, which had her stone faced in the sidelines dutifully fetching and carrying for her cousins and simpering on cue. When she finally stands up against her uncle Sir Thomas’ wishes for her to accept the proposal of Henry Crawford, I was not convinced by her actions or words that she could have been capable of pleading her case against such a strong patriarch.
Compelling Michelle Ryan
Our hero Edmund Bertram’s best scenes were unfortunately not with our heroine, but played out with his love interest Mary Crawford. I was relieved that he was allowed to actually have more than a few lines with her. Their final scene together, ending his infatuation with her, was his best. My favorite performance was by Michelle Ryan as willful Maria Bertram. When she is on screen her presence was so compelling that it demands your complete attention. Other actresses with this same quality from the golden age of Hollywood such as Vivian Leigh or Ava Gardner learned to develop their acting beyond their striking beauty to command recognition. Miss Ryan is well on her way to stardom and I hope to see her in a more expanded capacity.
As for the production values, Mansfield Park was filmed at the stunning Newby Hall in North Yorkshire, a stately country manor built in Georgian era. The costumes and hair were adequate. The costumes had been appropriated and reused from previous Jane Austen adaptations. I must add that the designer did give us the requisite cleavage for the nasty female antagonist, and the big messy hair for the male cad. Thank you very much. I’m not sure that I would have been able to identify them otherwise. I was also amused to learn that the hair designer Mary Southgate had, in addition to her many credits in grand opera, worked as the hair designer on The Muppet Show. This may allow for the un-Regency like mop-top do of Miss Piper.
A Fools Errand
I was sad to see that the majority of the original nuances and wit in the novel ended up in the round file in this adaptation. In defense of screenwriter Maggie Wadey, she was hired for a fool’s errand. Condensing Austen’s 473 page intricately detailed work (Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen) into ninety minutes of screen time is an impossible task. I am still hopeful that one day we will have a longer and more detailed interpretation of Austen’s dark horse. There is merit in the story if the right screenwriter and production team have the insight, budget, and the guts to go for it.
3 out of 5 Stars
- Mansfield Park (2007)
- Studio: ITV & PBS
- Screenwriter: Maggie Wadey, based on the novel by Jane Austen
- Director: Iain B. MacDonald
- Cast: Billie Piper, Blake Ritson, Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, & Michelle Ryan
- Length: 1 hours and 30 minutes
We received a DVD from the producer in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Images courtesy of Masterpiece PBS and ITV © 2007; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2008, austenprose.com. Updated 12 March 2022.