From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:
Take a controversial classic novel, mix in a liberal filmmaker’s re-interpretation, amplify the slavery subtext, add in lesbianism and incest, and presto! you have Mansfield Park (1999), writer-director Patricia Rozema’s provocative adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel. I am not exaggerating when I say that Jane Austen’s fans find this movie puzzling. So did critics. It has spawned a rash of conversation since it premiered. Just Google it and you get 28,000 hits! The reviews were mixed and run hot or cold; no gray area anywhere for this film.
The ‘Improvement’ of the Austen Film Genre
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 screenplay by perking up Fanny Price, expanding upon the political subtext, adding in F/F romance, and fixing the broken storyline (in her opinion) by working in Jane Austen’s juvenilia stories and personal letters. While Austen’s novel seriously contemplates the controversial 19th-century theme of ‘improvement’ of the estate and social values, writer-director Rozema has boldly applied that movement by the ‘improvement’ of the Austen film genre, in her mind’s eye. The results are a thought provoking, reinvention and dalliance that had never been attempted with a Jane Austen adaptation before.
Changes in Character’s Personalities
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! Fanny’s mentor, friend, and love interest Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller) is now a Byronic hero that the Bronte’s would have approved of, not the pious and clueless minister in training. The Crawford siblings (Embeth Davidtz & Alessandro Nivola) are as wicked as ever, which suits Rozema’s purpose as they are pushed further with a same sex flirtation and two cruel seductions. 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 choice helps bring 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).
If taken as a whole, this film does work on the level of art for art’s sake. Visually it is stunning, the locations are beautiful, the costumes are fabulous, and the music is joyful. The performances of Miller as Edmund and O’Conner as Fanny give us a sense of Austen’s original concept and intensions. The final denouement with their admission of love is touching and rewarding. We are confident this they will have a happy life together because they are well-suited for each other and will be living the life that they have chosen.
I do find it fascinating that people are still debating Mansfield Park (1999)’s merits after almost ten years. If anything, it has stimulated thought and closer study of what Jane Austen is about, and how she is interpreted. After reading the novel, I find watching it unsettling. If readers of the novel want to yell at Fanny Price for being too 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.
4 out of 5 Stars
- “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
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
- Patricia Rozema’s web site
- Mansfield Park (1999) movie trailer on YouTube
- Mansfield Park (1999)
- Studio: Miramax
- Screenwriter: Patricia Rozema based on the novel by Jane Austen
- Director: Patricia Rozema
- Cast: Frances O’Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola
- Length: 1 hour and 52 minutes
We streamed the movie via Amazon Prime Video for our own enjoyment. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Image courtesy of Miramax © 1999; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2008, austenprose.com. Updated 13 March 2022.
Movies tend to be different from books, some are very close and only few things changed, but it sounds like alot was changed here. I will probably check it out to watch, but I’ll wait til the contest is over first, lol. It will be entertainging either way, esp with all the beautiful clothes and scenes.
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I watched this version a few days ago. Overall, I liked it alot – the usual result of my watching anything Austen. But I prefer the 2007 version from itv1.
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I find this is a great movie but a very very bad adaptation. For the good: as a movie in itself it’s great, the costumes are great, the people who play the Crawfords are very good, so is Mr. Rushworth and Edmund is played well too, I think. The music is also very nice, and it is an amusing film in general. However, as an adaptation it is not good at all. Fanny is more like Jo March here and the story isn’t even that similar. The part of the story with Fanny’s sister Susan wasn’t AT ALL the same, though Susan was played very well (though I don’t think she’s supposed to be THAT vivacious and witty, but whatever).
In all, this is a GREAT movie for amusement sake, but not so much for adaptation’s sake. I’d watch it any day, though.
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I enjoyed reading the synopsis, but was not very excited to read that it didn’t follow the book’s portrayal of the characters, especially Fanny’s. However, like Dina wrote about, I will watch it anyway because I also like to watch movies based on Austen’s books. Like I said before, one of the reasons I have finally allowed myself to enjoy watching the different versions is because I feel like I am in on a secret with those of us who love to read her novels and become involved in the books. I get lost when I read Jane’s stories. I think it is the reason I read them over and over again. I find something different or a new outlook each time.
On a different note, I finally watched a movie adaptation of Persuasion with my husband. I was able to really enjoy it only because I knew many more details and aspects that were not in the film. My husband gets a kick out of it, or maybe he just humors my love for anything Austen. :)
I would have to agree with Laura. As an movie independent of it source materials, it’s good to watch. However, it fails miserably as an adaptation of Mansfield Park. I’ll just ignore the fact that I’m watching Jane Austen’s work and just enjoy it. If I want to watch the real adaptation, I would suggest watching the 1983 BBC miniseries as it’s the best adaptation ever made for Mansfield Park.
I have to agree with both Laura and Luthien84. It’s not bad as a movie, but I can’t say I like it as an adaptation of Jane Austen. With the background of Rozema’s attitude towards the novel, it does make rather more sense.
I wish I had something new to ad, but I think allmost all of the other have said the same. Great movie, bad adaptation. I really like the style of the movie which in some ways remind me of the Frence movie “Amelie from Montmartre” which is one of my favourite movies.
i too have mixed feelings about this one. i wonder, has anyone else seen the recent bbc production with billie piper? i think that was a little more true to the novel, but felt rather flat to me.
there are some fine, underrated actors in this one though.
I agree with several others on this–I enjoyed it as a stand-alone film but felt it wasn’t true to the book on many levels. Still, seeing Jane’s work brought to the public (even imperfectly :) is always a treat.
I have to admit that – even though I am a great Mansfield Park purist – I liked this adaptation very much. First of all – the subtext about slavery is actually there, though folded in. In its own way, slavery is to Mansfield Park what duels and seductions are to Sense and Sensibility. They’re there, but buried in the subtext. Sir Thomas’ pursuits in Antigua could not have been anything other than slavery – as Parliamentary debates of the time show. And Rozema’s decision to bring slavery to the forefront helps to highlight other parts of novel, and other parts of British society. For example, Fanny’s family at Portsmouth exists in a kind of netherworld – which of course could not be called slavery, but is a kind of servitude. Similarly, Fanny herself is treated like a servant. She is expected by her Aunt Norris to wait on the rest of the family. She is from a lower layer of society than the rest of the Mansfield Park family, and is therefore always the observer, the outsider in in her social situation. And Fanny’s position as a permanent ‘guest’ in the house marks her as a kind of servant, who is supposed to bend obligingly to the family’s wishes. Think, for example, about Sir Thomas’s treatment of Fanny when she refuses to accept Henry Crawford. He treats her as an ungrateful servant, who owes him allegiance because of her upbringing, the same way a servant would owe him an allegiance because of the salary he would pay them.
So….long story short, I think that the director’s decision to portray slavery actually enhances our appreciation of other servitude-linked aspects of the novel. I also adored Henry Crawford’s rendition of the starling passage in “A Sentimental Journey.” And how poignantly Maria echoed it when Edmund confronted her with Crawford. “Rushworth is a fool, and I cannot get out. Edmund…I cannot get out.” Maria too is a slave to her circumstances.
I have to admit that I like this adaptation more than is perhaps proper. :)
Hello Mansfield Park Madness participants day 10
To everyone who has not seen this movie go rent it. For those who have seen it I think that Laura summed it up perfectly.
“I find this is a great movie but a very very bad adaptation”
Too true! The added darker elements and change of the plot really moved it beyond being and adaptation and into a whole new genre. I wish that they had given it another title, then I might have been more accepting.
Cheers, Laurel Ann
After reading this again and knowing that I like many of the actors I this version, but hearing that is not a great adaptation, I’ll see it anf just enjoy it for what it is, a movie.
I’m not a purist when it comes to film adaptation. I do have mixed feelings about this particular one. Rozema made some additions in the story that I found unnecessary. Some of her other additions improved the movie. Ironically, some of the aspects of Austen’s novel that she retained did not help the movie, either.