Mansfield Park (2007) on Masterpiece Classic – A Review: No Hope of a Cure

Image from Mansfield Park 2007 Billie Piper and cast © 2007 Masterpiece PBS

“My dear Miss Price,” said Miss Crawford, as soon as she was at all within hearing, “I am come to make my own apologies for keeping you waiting; but I have nothing in the world to say for myself-I knew it was very late, and that I was behaving extremely ill; and therefore, if you please, you must forgive me. Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” Mary Crawford, Mansfield Park, Chapter 7

Today I am feeling much like that supercilious Mary Crawford in Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park; selfish, greedy and smug. I want my Jane Austen adaptations served up to me according to my wishes. Right now!

Three weeks into The Complete Jane Austen presentation on PBS and I’m still waiting to be wowed. Was the 1995-97 adaptation spree a fluke? Has Colin Firth’s performance as Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice spoiled me from ever enjoying any other adaptation? As singer Peggy Lee crooned, “Is that all there is?”

This brings me squarely to the latest installment, Mansfield Park, which if I may be so bold is not an easy novel to understand and even more of a challenge to adapt to the screen. The misunderstanding of the novel is certainly not from lack of effort. Of Jane Austen’s entire canon, Mansfield Park has erupted more heated discussion than any of her other novels, resulting in the infamous ‘Fanny wars‘ among academics and amateurs alike. In defense of our Jane Austen, we happily trample gently and wield a big cluebat.

This adaptation presents a large and handsome cast of the usual Regency lineup; the poor relation and waif heroine Fanny Price (Billie Piper), who has been conscripted as a child into the household of her wealthy and privileged aunt and uncle, Lady (Jemma Redgrave) and Sir Thomas Betram (Douglas Hodge) to the family country manor Mansfield Park (Newby Hall). Fanny’s indolent cousins rule her world; heir apparent and gambling boozer Tom (James D’Arcy), and spoiled sisters Maria (Michelle Ryan) and Julia Bertram (Catherine Steadman). The only one on the straight and narrow among this tribe is our pious hero, and Fanny’s only friend Edmund Bertram (Blake Ritson).

Enter into the neighborhood two scheming siblings; acerbic Mary (Hayley Atwell) trolling for a rich husband, and hedonistic 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. Unfortunately, the majority of the original nuances and wit in the novel ends up in the round file. In defense of screen writer MaggieWadley, she was hired for a fool’s errand. The only person qualified to pare down this 473 page intricately detailed work (Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen) into ninety minutes of screen time would be Jane Austen herself, and unfortunately she was not available.

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, this adaptation directed by 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, the estate of Mr. Rushworth, Sotherton Court, and the Price family residence in Portsmouth. One can only assume that these deletions were agreeable to the budget, and not meant as a slight to the viewer! Ack! I felt like I was on a Jane Austen restricted diet.

The majority of actors were well cast with a few exceptions and standouts. I tried to like Billie Piper as Fanny, but 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 opposes 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. 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, and their final scene together ending his infatuation of 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.

I would like to conclude my review of Mansfield Park with a brief costume and hair roundup. Since so much of the script did not reflect the original novel, I was resolved to focus my review entirely on the costumes in the film until I learned that the majority of the frocks here designed by others, and appropriated from previous Jane Austen adaptations. For shame producers. You can get the complete runway rundown here. I must interject that the costume 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.

And, I would like to extend my sincere congratulations and thanks to Holly the Pug, for timing her barks, snorts and growls with such precise conviction and emotion. Besides Miss Piper’s bleached bimbo hurricane hair, she was the funniest part of this adaptation.

Image courtesy © 2007 Masterpiece PBS; text © 2008 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose

Unfeigned regret

Ackermann, Ball Dress 1809UNFEIGNED

… and she (Fanny Price) found herself the next moment conducted by Mr. Crawford to the top of the room, and standing there to be joined by the rest of the dancers, couple after couple, as they were formed.

She could hardly believe it. To be placed above so many elegant young women! The distinction was too great. It was treating her like her cousins! And her thoughts flew to those absent cousins with most unfeigned and truly tender regret, that they were not at home to take their own place in the room, and have their share of a pleasure which would have been so very delightful to them. The Narrator on Fanny Price, Mansfield Park, Chapter 28

As Fanny experiences the honour of the first dance at the ball with Henry Crawford, her thoughts turn immediately to her absent cousins Edmund, Julia and Maria Bertram and away from her own pride and joy. I am not a trained therapist, but there appears to be something not quite right with this thinking. Does Austen want us to admire Fanny’s unselfish thoughts and concerns for her cousins, or believe that her transference of unfeigned happiness is due to her doubts that she deserves them herself?

Mansfield Park is one of Jane Austen’s most introspective works, and it makes me dwell on the more serious issues of human nature and happiness.  I often have unfeigned regret for Fanny while reading it. But, – –  it does end well, which eases my poor nerves!