Seeking a by-the-book Jane Austen adaptation? Look elsewhere. With her daring interpretation of Mansfield Park., writer/director Patricia Rozema strove to do more than provide a book club cheat sheet for Austen’s lesser-known novel. Folding in elements of the author’s own girlhood, this bold filmmaker brought a new life and modern bite to the tale’s previously humdrum heroine, Fanny Price.
The charming (and woefully underrated) Frances O’Connor stars as the impoverished Fanny, shipped off to live with her rich cousins the Bertrams, but never allowed to forget her regrettable roots. Austen fans often complain Fanny is too bland. Not as witty as Elizabeth Bennet. Not as passionate as Marianne Dashwood. Not as accomplished as Emma Woodhouse. But you wouldn’t dare say such a thing about Rozema’s heroine. Her Fanny shoots side-eye with precision at her snooty husband-hunting cousins, harbors a burning love for the noble Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), and possesses a unique skill for writing fascinating tales that he envies, lamenting, “My writing is wood compared to your wild constructions!”
Rozema chose to blend Austen’s own moxie into her heroine, generously borrowing from Austen’s early, more “wild constructions” to serve as Fanny’s own works and voiceover. “Beware of fainting fits! Beware of swoons,” Fanny advises herself after a charged moment with the dastardly sexy suitor Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola). Aside from providing some added Austen oomph, this also gives Fanny a mischievous edge as she writes a deliciously ghastly tale: “Eliza eloped to Paris with her love. Unfortunately, she lived beyond her means, and was imprisoned and partially eaten by her two young sons. But she intends to murder the guards.”
Another major revision is Rozema’s emphasis on the troubling root of the Bertram family’s wealth: slave labor. A detail hinted at in the novel is plumbed in the film as a means of justifying the deep divide between the bullying patriarch (Harold Pinter) and his eldest son Tom (James Purefoy), whose knowledge of his father’s sins hurls him into drinking, gambling, and painting “very modern” self-portraits reflecting his grief. In the film’s grimmest moment, Fanny too becomes aware of the horrible secrets of Bertram affluence. And it’s suggested her repulsed reaction influences the family’s ultimate move away from slave labor industries, and into tobacco. (Rozema plays this reveal as a sly joke in closing narration.)
But perhaps the most thrilling aspect of this “very modern” adaptation of Austen is Rozema’s exploration of how each of the women in the film is trapped. A wooing rogue, Henry, reads a poem about a caged starling who laments, “I can’t get out. I can’t get out!” This becomes a metaphor for the women of Mansfield Park. There’s Fanny’s mother (Lindsay Duncan), who married for love, and ended up broke, with a drunk husband and an ever-growing brood of bawling children. There’s her aunt (also Lindsay Duncan), who married for wealth, and finds her life of privilege but little importance so dull that she dopes herself into a stupor so intense she’s capable of little more than petting her pet pug and occasionally saying something laughably oblivious. There’s cousin Maria (Victoria Hamilton), who pines for a man with a wandering eye, but settles on a fool with wealth and affection for her. When Maria rebels against the underwhelming options she has been offered, she cries out, “I can’t get out!” And we worry how Fanny can avoid the trap that marriage seems to be in every instance here.
Fanny’s love story is ultimately, a bit predictable. Her options are a sweet and pious Edmund or flirtatious “rake” Henry. You know who will finally stroll with Fanny into a lovely but modest happy ending. But Rozema provides some curious possibilities along the way, folding in a subtle third contender for Fanny’s heart.
Henry’s sister Mary Crawford—as played by Embeth Davidtz—is jockeying hard to marry Edmund. But in one scene after the next that she shares with Fanny, it seems this bawdy would-be bride’s true love interest is the bookish girl with the quick wit. Using the pretext of a home theatrical, Mary flirts and fondles Fanny. She steals her away for private moments, and speaks ardently about her own selfishness and her desire for them to be “sisters.” The Mary of Rozema’s Mansfield Park relishes in getting a rise out of easily awed men, yet in private seems enthralled by Fanny. Though Mary and Henry are ultimately the antagonists of the piece, Rozema has a sympathy for them, and Mary especially. Like her peers, Mary is trapped within a system that forces her to make impossible choices. Who could blame her for twisting her moral compass to give her the closest to happiness she might hope for? (Okay, her final scheme is still pretty damn ruthless.)
But for all this family in-fighting and societal strife, Rozema keeps the tone of Mansfield bright and the humor as witty as an Austen adaptation demands. There is naturally a boorish in-law, tolerated because of his wealth (Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville). There’s the delicious trouble and sensational scandal brought by out-of-town marital prospects that pitch the Bertram clan into a torrid storm of flirtations, seduction, and love triangles. And best of all, there’s a flock of female characters, flawed and compelling, fierce and funny, for whom we can swoon and not fear fainting.
Enjoy Mansfield Park on Netflix.