If ever a picture deserved a possessory credit, it’s this one, which should have been called “Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park.” It certainly isn’t Jane Austen’s. Janeites, well served by “Persuasion,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Emma,” are likely to raise more than eyebrows at this often radical reworking of Austen’s third published novel; pic reinterprets the central character, Fanny Price, as a cross between Austen herself and a tomboyish proto-feminist, throws in some magical realism and gratuitous lesbian frissons to spice up the pot, and too often steps out of its era to adopt a knowing, politically correct, late-20th-century attitude to the society portrayed.
Though high on production values and generally well acted, this push-me-pull-you pic — second to see the light from Miramax’s London-based production arm HAL Films, following “Elephant Juice,” which preemed at the recent Edinburgh fest — looks unlikely to have much of a career Stateside, especially given its confused identity and lack of major star power. In Canada, where it was the opening night attraction at the Montreal fest, local girl Rozema’s name should at least get it off to a good start.
Opening reel starts promisingly as 10-year-old Fanny (Hannah Taylor Gordon) is sent by her impoverished parents in Portsmouth to live with her mother’s sisters, the laudanum-addicted Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan, who also plays Hannah’s mother) and snooty Mrs. Norris (Sheila Gish), at the sprawling country mansion Mansfield Park. Lady Bertram’s husband, Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), who’s grown rich on slave-driven plantations in the West Indies, has a drunken elder son, Tom (James Purefoy, thinly drawn), a more studious younger one, Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), and two eligible daughters, Maria and Julia (Victoria Hamilton, Justine Waddell).
Fanny is treated as little more than a declasse servant by the family, her only friend the kindly but weak Edmund. After rapidly intro’ing the large cast of characters and establishing a sprightly, sardonic tone that’s close to the novel, pic neatly dissolves into the story of the grown-up Fanny (Frances O’Connor), who’s now a passionate and prolific amateur writer, experienced horsewoman and wearer of tomboyish garb.
Her letters home to her sister, Susan (Sophia Miles), form an almost parallel strand of self-expression, making Fanny very different from the quiet and restrained character of Austen’s original (in which she is not a writer).
But the film tries to have it both ways, sometimes giving the viewer pure Austen, with well-turned dialogue, acute social irony and held-back emotions, and at others belaboring audiences with observations on the evils of slave trading (only passingly mentioned in the novel), dialogue that simply jars (“This is 1806, for heaven’s sake!”) and a general nudge-nudge contempo attitude that undermines the story’s delicate emotional texture.
Rozema doesn’t seem to realize that, as Ang Lee and others have proved, it is possible to adhere to Austen’s originals without losing their irony and social observation.
Into Mansfield Park one day walk the brother-and-sister act of Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz), sophisticated manipulators to their fingertips. Handsome Henry attracts the attention of Fanny along with every other woman at the manse, and brainy and beautiful Mary — in between cozying up to Fanny in a couple of vaguely lesbian advances that have nothing to do with anything — soon sets her sights on Edmund, whom she sees as the ultimate inheritor of the Bertrams’ wealth once the aged Sir Thomas and sickly Tom pass on.
Sir Thomas quickly agrees to a match between Henry and Fanny, though the latter, mistrusting Henry’s apparent sincerity, refuses and flees back to Portsmouth. She’s really in love with Edmund, though he’s too nice and wimpy to upset the family apple cart.
The picture certainly has its moments: Rozema is especially good at evoking her heroine’s emotional giddiness through visuals and Lesley Barber’s rich, copious music. And when she lets Austen’s dialogue have a chance — as during a late-in-the-proceedings carriage scene between Fanny and Edmund that’s tumescent with repressed feelings — the movie briefly has an emotional power.
But there’s little sense of a longer dramatic arc stretching across the characters: Rozema can’t seem to hold a single tone for more than a few minutes, and she has too many other axes to grind besides just getting the story up on the screen.
Aussie actress O’Connor (striking in “Love and Other Catastrophes”) is excellent as Rozema’s Fanny and, despite only being fourth billed, carries the movie to the best degree possible in the circumstances. As her fumbling vis-a-vis, Miller is variable, with the dialogue not always sitting easily in his modern mouth. Nivola is smooth, and blooms briefly during his Portsmouth scenes with O’Connor; Davidtz is poised but rarely allowed to get a handle on her character in extended scenes.
The supports are all good, with Pinter grave and sonorous, Duncan fine in her two contrasted roles of poor mother and rich aunt, and Gish sharp as the waspish other aunt. As Fanny’s younger sister, Miles makes an impression in the late going.