Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Mansfield Park Movie Showdown

Mansfield Park.  As I've been writing these movie reviews, I've been assuming that everyone is familiar with Austen's plots, but just in case, here's a quick summary. Fanny Price, age 10, goes to live with her rich aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, and is raised with her four cousins, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia, under the supervision of Mrs. Norris, another aunt and the great comic character of this novel. When they are all young adults, Fanny is in love with Edmund, who is in love with Mary Crawford, a woman of uncertain morals who is introduced to the neighborhood along with her brother Henry, a rake.  Maria is engaged to one Mr. Rushworth, but this doesn't stop her from entering a flirtation with Henry.  It doesn't stop Julia either.

Mansfield Park (1999)

I was so excited when this movie came out.  Up till that point, the only Mansfield Park movie was a highly unsatisfactory BBC version.  Unfortunately, this movie left me so indignant at what I believed to be a betrayal of Jane Austen's novel, I vowed I would never watch it again.

What angered me was the Sir Bertram-as-a-slaver theme.  It's not that I won't stand for social consciousness invading my entertainment.  It's just that, if you want to make a movie about the subjugation of one group of people by another group of people, then make a movie about the subjugation of one group of people by another group of people, but don't stick it into a Jane Austen novel like a turnip in the middle of an ice cream sundae.  Maybe that's the whole point, to let the ugly invade the drawing room, but what purpose is served in this case?  (Don't you dare say "raising awareness.")  In the book, Sir Bertram does own a plantation in Antigua, so it's safe to assume he owns slaves.  Does this mean he raped them and whipped them, as shown in Tom Bertram's horrifying drawings?  Austen has been criticized for ignoring, in her novels, the larger societal issues of her time.  But why should a writer of fiction be obligated to put anything into her novels other than what she wants to put in them?

At the end of the movie, we're told that Sir Bertram has given up his plantation in Antigua, with the implication that he has given up owning slaves.  But then we're told he has a new business interest: tobacco.  I guess someone forgot to tell the writers that the cultivation of tobacco also involved slavery.

The other irritating thing about this movie is that they made Fanny Price into an alter-ego of Jane Austen herself.  This Fanny Price has a hobby of writing.  Maybe this is a clever way to showcase Austen's brilliant The History of England but the Fanny Price character of the novel wouldn't have dreamed of writing racy, romantic stories like the character in the movie does.

Finally, I was disgusted by the implication that Mr. Price molests his daughters.  Yes, he's not a great provider for his family, has a lower social standing than his wife and has dragged her down to his level, but must he be guilty of incest as well?

That said, there is good to this movie, such as the cast.  I particularly like Hugh Bonneville as the stupid,  Mr. Rushworth, Maria Bertram's fiancee.  His foppish, regency-style haircut is a triumph.

Victoria Hamilton and Justine Waddell are excellent as Maria and Julia Bertram.  Johnny Lee Miller is adorable as Edmund.  (He played Mr. Knightly in the Romola Garai version of Emma.) Hottie Alessandro Nivola performs excellently as Henry Crawford.  I found myself rooting for him, despite the lovely Johnny Lee Miller.  The only disappointment is Sheila Gish as Mrs. Norris.  It's not that her acting is bad, it's just that she's relegated to minor character status, while in the book, she's a major comic force.

Mansfield Park (2007)

At first, I couldn't identify why this movie made me feel so dissatisfied.  It has a decent cast.  I heart Blake Ritson, who plays Edmund and Jemma Redgrave is the best Lady Bertram of all the movies. I also love James Darcy as the wild older brother Tom.  Billie Piper, on the other hand, is SO not right as Fanny.  I'm not saying she's a bad actress.  She's good in The Secret Diary of a Call Girl, but she is not convincing as plain, shy Fanny.  Girl, this is not your century.  

I realized that the reason this movie is so disappointing is that it ignores the fact that Mansfield Park is supposed to be a comedy.  All the humor of the novel is missing in this film and it progresses through its plot with all the joy of a prisoner walking to the electric chair.  

Mansfield Park (1983)

Let's start with what's good.  It is true to the book.  The Mrs. Norris character is allowed her full depth and we can see, in glorious comic detail, just how cheap, petty, jealous, foolish, and ridiculous Austen meant her to be.  Bernard Hepton is the best Sir Bertram of all the movies. (He is also Mr. Woodhouse in the Kate Beckinsale version of Emma.)  Jonathan Stephens is very good as Mr. Rushworth, and Samantha Bond is good as Maria Bertram.  (She plays Mrs. Weston in the Kate Beckinsale version of Emma.)

And now for the bad.  Let's start with the animation that plays during the opening credits.  A kindergartener, using an old cell phone he found in his toy box, could throw together something more polished.  The sets are typical of the low-budget BBC films of the period.  Sharp-eyed Amazon customer reviewers claim to have seen brief glimpses of the production crew ducking out of the way.  The costumes are dull, although some people might be amused by the dreadful wigs and, in one scene, the furry "beaver" hats that Edmund and Sir Bertram wear. The Amazon customer reviewers mock Mr. Price's absurdly red nose. 

Some of the acting is terrible, particularly Sylvestra Le Touzel's portrayal of Fanny.  She has two speeds:  deadly dull and full-on hysteria.  Whenever she has to express a strong emotion, brace yourself, because it's downright embarrassing, particularly the sobbing when Sir Bertram yells at her for not wanting to marry Henry Crawford, and her extreme reaction when she's asked to take a part in the play.  She has a curious method of using choppy arm movements to express herself.  Maybe she was instructed to do it, but it looks unnatural.  Equally awful is Angela Pleasence as Lady Bertram, possibly the most annoying portrayal of any character in the entire history of film.  In a few scenes she is positively sucking her thumb.  Robert Burbage as Henry Crawford simpers through the whole film and an Amazon customer reviewer says he looks like a "bipedal mouse" which is deadly accurate.  Jackie Smith-Wood is decent as Mary Crawford, but her performance is overshadowed, literally, by her execrable wig.  Nicholas Farrell, as Edmund, is about as interesting as a pair of brown polyester socks.  Next to him, Henry "Bipedal Mouse" Crawford is an absolute Adonis.  

I am sorry to be shallow, but WHY IS EVERYBODY SO UGLY?  Were there no attractive actors in Britain in the 1980's?  Sylvestra Le Touzel might have been attractive in real life, but in this movie, she is the victim of the worlds most unflattering hairstyle.  After Sir Bertram's return from Antigua, Fanny is declared to be much improved in looks, and this is illustrated in the film by turning her bangs into a curly frizz which makes her look even worse.



Henry Crawford

Mary Crawford

If I were to be handing out awards:

Best Edmund:  Johnny Lee Miller (1999)
Best Fanny:  There is no best Fanny, but the least bad is Frances O'Connor.
Best Henry Crawford: Alessandro Nivola (1999)
Best Mary Crawford:  Hayley Atwell (2007)
Best Aunt Norris:  Anna Massey (1983)
Best movie overall:  The definitive Mansfield Park has not yet been made.

I am trying to decide who I would cast as Fanny Price but can't come up with anyone. Who would you suggest?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I haven't seen any of these, and now I think I'll just wait for the next attempt :-)

  3. I HEART these reviews you do. They are so thorough, so RIGHT ON. And I never understood the BBC's urge to make the characters look ugly.

  4. Jane Austin (I know it's spelled wrong. British joke. Means it sometimes starts, but always breaks down. Laugh.)
    Sorry, where was I?

    Oh yes.

    Jane Austen.


    Where's the bloody plot?
    Where's the action?

    Drone drone drone drone.
    Whoshould I choose?
    Handsome and poor.
    Rich and a bastard.

    Oh, oh, oh, swither, swuither, swither.

    Rippling muscles and hairy yet muscular chest.

    Oh, Heathcliffe.

    Sorry, wrong plot.

    Choose the romantic one.

    Throw up.