Mansfield Park

"How long must you stay?" "I don't know. How long must you stay?"

Jane Austen has her own subgenre, with 16 movies adapted from her novels since 1940. Aside from Clueless, however, there hasn’t been much creative variety in the films; they’ve been more or less similar in setting and style. Like John Grisham films, Jane Austen, genius as her work is, gets old after a while. We’ve been needing a director to do something new with one of her novels, to go where no one has gone before. That wish will not be granted by Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, a reasonably entertaining, altogether unoriginal film version of one of Austen’s least populist works.

The much analyzed protagonist of the story is Fanny Price who was given away by her well-intentioned but poverty-stricken mother to live in Mansfield Park, her pretentious aunt’s wealthy household. She is shunned and treated like a servant by everyone except Edmund, one of her cousins. Over the years, Edmund and Fanny develop a close, but platonic relationship; he is her first defender, she is his first confidant and vice versa.

Matters are complicated by the arrival of Henry, a good-looking aristocrat who takes an immediate interest in Fanny. He courts her and proposes marriage, but Fanny doesn’t trust him and, though interested, is very hesitant to commit to him, even pulling a 19th century version of The Runaway Bride on the poor chap. Sir Thomas, the head of Fanny’s household, insists that she mary the desirable Henry, threatening to kick her out of Mansfield Park should she refuse.

Frances O’Conner, in a lovely performance and a difficult role, plays Fanny, a complex and demanding character which O’Conner pulls off deftly. Jonny Lee Miller, last seen in the pathetic Plunkett and Macleane is tender and effective as Edmund while the little seen Harry Pinter is terrifically menacing as the head of the manor. Lindsay Duncan has a fairly thankless part as the conniving, despicable Lady Bertram but she succeeds with repulsive perfection. The only weak link in the cast (and of course, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link) is Alessandro Nivola whose Henry is dull and standard, undermining the dilemma at the heart of the movie: from Nivola’s portrayal it isn’t difficult to see why Fanny never went ga-ga over the guy.

Rozema’s film is funny, melodramatic, and enjoyable. The pace is reasonably fast, the direction is able and the mood is nothing short of crowd-pleasing. At the end, the good guys prosper and the bad guys get their come-uppance. Everything is dandy. Everything is also tiresomely ordinary. There is not a speck of originality in this film; the setting and the script have been done and redone countless times, even if the story itself has been left untouched (sans a 1983 tv mini-series). Things that we see for the first time in the movie already feel repetitive because we’ve seen them so many times in movies past. This is your basic British melodrama, à la Jane Eyre and Sense and Sensibility, with virtually no variations on the formula.

Jane Austen deserves a revival. She is a wonderful novelist who needs a filmmaker to breathe fresh life into her work. Mansfield Park is a perfectly good adaptation, but it’s trite. She is suffering from John Grisham syndrome.

-- Eugene Novikov

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