Mansfield Park
directed by Patricia Rozema
(Miramax, 1999)

Marry for love? Not if your family owns an estate like Mansfield Park.

Fanny Price may be the poor relation, come to live with her relatives in their rambling mansion, but she's shrewd enough to see through the frippery surrounding family alliances: "Marriage," Fanny says, "is, indeed, a maneuvering business."

Jane Austen's wonderful Mansfield Park, a book that's been called a remarkable reflection of 19th-century Britain's upper crust, has been adapted to film before -- but Patricia Rozema's version, while not completely faithful to Austen's novel, has enough of the great writer's touch, and a wonderful cast, to give viewers a real taste of the original.

Austen's book begins: "About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady...." Maria's sister, however, doesn't follow that example: "But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige her family, and by fixing on a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions, did it very thoroughly."

That "improper" marriage of Frances' splits the family, until Frances' oldest girl is nearing her teens. Little Fanny is then uprooted from her impoverished family and sent to live with the wealthy Bertram branch of the family in the attic of their Mansfield Park -- in the mansion, of course, but about as far away from being treated as a "real" family member as she can get. There, she receives the education of an upper-class girl and forges a close friendship with her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller). And when brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, arrive in the neighborhood, their presence is a catalyst to another level of both romance and ulterior motives.

Mansfield Park is an intriguing examination, by turns comic and ruthless, of families like the Bertrams: all gloss, status, image and tradition on the surface but with a dark and suffocating underbelly. Who earns the Bertrams' money? Slaves in Antigua, a shame that is of little consequence to most of the family, but which will have huge ramifications.

Frances O'Connor (Bedazzled) is wonderful as the outsider Fanny, trying to live by her own moral standards and trying to resist the arbitrary mores of higher society. Her uncle, Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), is appalled when the good little girl turns feisty: "Independence of spirit in a young woman is offensive and disgusting," he says.

Equal standouts are Embeth Davidtz (Schindler's List) as Mary Crawford, who may or may not be sincere, and Alessandro Nivola as Henry Crawford. Director Rozema (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing) has dressed up Austen in some slightly risque clothing, but the end result is close enough that she shares script credits with the great author.

(There are lots of ways to get at Austen's story -- besides renting Mansfield Park. Get yourself to your public library, or, in this digital age, read it online.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 10 August 2001

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