Take a controversial classic novel, mix in a liberal filmmaker’s re-interpretation, add in slavery, lesbianism and incest and presto! you have Mansfield Park (1999), writer-director Patricia Rozema’s provocative adaptation of Jane Austen complex novel. I don’t think that I am exaggerating when I estimate that Janeites find this one a bit puzzling. So did critics. It has spawned a rash of conversation since it premiered in 1999. Just Google it and you get 28,000 hits! The reviews where mixed and run hot or cold; no gray area anywhere for this film. Here are a few of the choice opinions.
Mansfield Park manor house
“Stifled and tedious adaptation of an Austen classic strips the heroine of her usual power of perception and tongue.” CinemaSense
“Rozema’s point is that Mansfield Park, and the amorous escapades of its wealthy inhabitants, are founded on and sustained by this debased form of exploitation. This is certainly an intriguing opening-out of the novel, but in doing so the film appropriates the moral high ground in a way that further distances it from the delicacy and ambiguity of Austen’s insights.” Andy Richards, BFI
“what the film represents is the marketing of a new ‘Jane Austen’ to a post-feminist audience now receptive to its reinvention of the novel” John Wiltshire, Recreating Jane Austen (2001)
“In the hands of a less talented filmmaker, this extensive tinkering and modernizing might seem irritating and pretentious. But in peering beneath Austen’s genteel surfaces and scraping away the Hollywood gloss that traditionally accrues to screen adaptations of Austen, Ms. Rozema has made a film whose satiric bite is sharper than that of the usual high-toned romantic costume drama.” Stephen Holden, New York Times
“By breaking the seal, Rozema has freed costume drama from the shackles of tradition, exposing its naked flesh. The window that Thompson unsnibbed has been flung wide. Fresh air tastes good.” Angus Wolfe Murray, Eye for Film
“an audacious and perceptive cinematic evocation of Jane Austen’s distinctively sharp yet forgiving vision” Claudia L. Johnson, Austen scholar
Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) & Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller) riding together
When Rozema was originally offered the opportunity to direct Mansfield Park she declined stating the script was boring and the heroine annoying. She then proceeded to re-write the script by perking up Fanny Price, adding a political and sexual subtext that Jane Austen would never have broached, and fixing the broken storyline (in her opinion) by working in Jane Austen’s juvenilia stories and personal letters. The results are a thought provoking jumble of reinvention and dalliance that had never been attempted with a Jane Austen adaptation before.
A bored Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola), and a flirtatious Maria Bertram
(Victoira Hamilton) & Mr. Rushworth (Hugh Bonneville)
Austen’s novel seriously contemplates the controversial 19th-century theme of ‘improvement’ of the estate and social values. Writer-director Rozema has overtly taken it yet a step further renovating and expanding the plot and characters so much so that subtly sardonic Jane Austen might have been a bit alarmed at the liberties.
Edmund Bertram & Fanny Price discuss the Ball
Our heroine Fanny Price, energetically portrayed by Frances O’Connor, has morphed from the shy and oppressed glorified servant into an exuberant outspoken aspiring writer – what Rozema visualizes Jane Austen had been! Oh my! Fanny’s mentor, friend and love interest Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller) is now a romantic, more a Byronic hero that the Bronte’s would have approved of than a pious and clueless minister in training.
Henry Crawford visits Fanny Price in Portsmouth
The Crawford siblings (Embeth Davidtz & Alessandro Nivola) are as wicked as ever, which suits Rozema’s purpose totally as they are pushed further with lesbianism and seduction. The greatest liberty is taken in the slave trade subtext as we are shown graphic illustrations of the atrocities of slavery that the character Tom Bertram (James Purefoy) witnessed at his father Sir Thomas’ (Harold Pinter) plantation in Antigua. Even though slavery is only alluded to in the novel, this stab brings Rozema’s vision of the injustice of ill-gotten-gains sharply to view. Other notable British actors playing out this theatrical are; Lindsay Duncan (Lady Bertram/Mrs. Price), Victoria Hamilton (Maria Bertram), Hugh Bonneville (Mr. Rushworth) and Justine Waddell (Julia Bertram).
Henry & Mary Crawford entertain their new spouses
who look more intriged with each other!
If taken as a whole this film does work on the level of art for film making’s sake. Visually it is stunning, the costumes fabulous and the music joyful. I do find it fascinating that people are still debating its merits after almost ten years. If anything, it has stimulated thought and closer reflection on what Jane Austen is about, and how she is interpreted. As a Janeite, I find watching it so distracting. If readers of the novel want to yell at Fanny Price for being so passive, then in turn I want to yell at Rozema’s Fanny for being SO vivacious. This is not Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, but it is a worthy amusement all-the-same.
A happy ending for Fanny & Edmund
Further reading & viewing
- Run Mad, But Do Not Faint: The Authentic Audacity of Rozema’s Mansfield Park, by Claudia L. Johnson, New York Literary Supplement, 1999
- Spicing Up Austen’s 1806 with Dashes of 1999, by Stephen Holden, New York Times, 1999
- In Defense of Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, by David Monaghan, Persuasions (2006) JASNA
- “I am a wild beast”: Patricia Rozema’s Forward Fanny, by Allison Shea, Persuasions (2006) JASNA
- Modernizing Mansfield Park: Patricia Rozema’s Spin on Jane Austen, Kathi Groenendyk, Persuasions (2004) JASNA
- Rozema’s adaptation of Austen’s Mansfield Park and Juvenilia, by Ellen Moody, Ellen and Jim Have a Bog Too
- Mansfield Park at IMDB
- Patricia Rozema’s web site
- Mansfield Park (1999) movie trailer on YouTube
“It could have turned out differently, I suppose. But it didn’t.” Fanny Price
Mansfield Park Madness: Day 10 Give-away
Leave a comment by August 30 to qualify for a free drawing on August 31 for one copy of
Mansfield Park (1999)
Written and directed by Patricia Rozema. Major motion picture, 112 minutes. Staring Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price, Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram and Embeth Davidtz as Mary Crawford
Day 11 – Aug 25 MP Fun with Fanny & Friends
Day 12 – Aug 26 MP novel discussion chapters 33-40
Day 13 – Aug 27 MP 2007 movie discussion
Day 14 – Aug 28 MP novel discussion chapter 41-48