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.