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UK 1999
Directed by
Patricia Rozema
112 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Mansfield Park

You don’t need to have read Jane Austen’s 1814 novel 'Mansfield Park' to know that screenwriter and director Patricia Rozema has taken considerable liberties with the original text. Human trafficking, rape and an adulterous couple sprung in conflagrante delicto are hardly the kind of things one expects to find in the demur pages of a Austen novel. Yet whilst purists might object the result is arguably a more engaging and richer experience

Australian actor Frances O’Connor plays Fanny Price, an intelligent young woman whose family lives in poverty in Portsmouth in the early19th century. Fanny's mother married unwisely for love whilst her sister, Lady Bertram, married for money and now lives in the country estate which gives the novel and film their titles. One day Fanny is sent to live at Mansfield Park with her aunt (Lindsay Duncan), her husband Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter) and their sons Tom (James Purefoy) and Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) and two daughters (Victoria Hamilton and Justine Waddell). Fanny and Edmund become fast friends but she chafes under the low expectations for women at the time (which come down to marriage or reliance on one's relation). She takes refuge in writing. One day the Crawfords, Henry and his sister Mary (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz) appear on the scene with a view to marrying into the Bertram family.  Fanny’s  uncle wants her to marry Henry as he does the much more compliant Edmund to marry Mary.

It’s not too much to say that Austen was a proto-feminist, deeply concerned about the way that the patriarchal values and social mores of the time limited women. Rozema has taken this core concern, added material taken from Austen's journals and letters, and given us with a heroine that Austen might only have dreamt of (not least for occasionally breaking the fourth wall). It makes for zestier viewing than a more straightforward adaptation would have delivered  Indeed one can’t help but wish that she’d taken Austen’s text even further in  the direction of the delicious parlour games of Stephens Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988) or Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) although that would surely have raised an outcry from Austen boffins.

O’Connor in what remains to date the highpoint of her career makes for a convincing Austen heroine whilst Pinter who is best known as playwright and scenarist is outstanding as Sir Thomas. Nivola and Davidtz effectively fill their roles as dyed-in-the-wool snobs as is Hugh Bonneville as an upper class ninny but one might question the casting of Jonny Lee Miller who was far better suited to the role of Sick Boy in Trainspotting (1996) than Fanny’s rather sensitive true love that, somewhat anomalously, is one she has a lot of trouble in declaring.




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