One of these days I must train myself to read the novels of Jane Austen. So
many people love them, but as of yet, I've been unable to comprehend them.
Her sentences are too long for me, and written in complex structures of
defunct words -- unless I pause to absorb each one individually, they run
past me like a foreign language. Thank goodness for film adaptations.
The latest is "Mansfield Park", written and directed by Patricia Rozema, and
based on the book Austen was most proud of, as well as the author's letters
and early journals. The nature of the additional source material means the
movie's heroine is more like the real Austen than the character in the book.
This can't be too harmful, since most writers impose their own desires and
values on the protagonists of their stories.
The girl's name is Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor), whose mother sent her away
as a child, to live with her rich aunt Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan) in the
lavish country estate of Mansfield Park. Fanny has grown up knowing her place
-- when to say "Yes, ma'am" or shuffle off in a corner -- but releases her
emotions through story writing, and confiding in her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee
"Mansfield Park" is a generally light and funny film which invites us to
watch Fanny handle the coldness and pressure of her priggish relatives, and
not only survive, but somehow prevail. I have no idea how much of this comes
from the novel, and it's hard for me to analyse the film from that angle.
This is not a position I enjoy. I feel out of my depth when watching a film
based on a famous book that I haven't read. It's as if I'm missing some
necessary piece of general knowledge.
I suppose I must, however, try to respond to some of the charges that have
been levelled at Rozema's picture, which has become notorious among Austen
purists (some of whom may even have seen it). One thing people are up in arms
about is the making of Fanny into a writer. From my ignorant point of view,
this makes perfect sense: Since Fanny's environment prevents her from
shouting out her thoughts, and a movie cannot contain a narration telling us
what's going on in her head, we understand her feelings through what she
Another controversy surrounds the way Rozema explicitly reveals that
Mansfield Park profits from the slave trade, something that was only hinted
at in the book. Again I would argue that this is unavoidable: In film, if
something isn't on screen, it isn't anywhere, and besides, Austen wouldn't
have insinuated something if she'd wanted us to ignore it.
Then there are the claims regarding Rozema's sex scenes -- which are
ridiculous, because no such moments exist! There is one brief glimpse of a
breast, very late on in the film, as an incidental character is caught en
flagrante. But plenty of hack journalists are making out that this is some
sort of wild bonkfest, with Fanny Price leading the way.
Ah, sigh. There will always be cretins who invent falsities to get their
names in print. All I can say is that "Mansfield Park" is an enjoyable piece
of cinema, with charming performances and rich, colourful photography. It
hasn't dissuaded me from attempting the Austen novels a few more times.
Copyright © 1999 UK Critic