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The Boston Phoenix Jane for the '90s

Empowered women reign in "Mansfield"

By Peter Keough

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  Repression takes scintillating form in the novels of Jane Austen; their elegant surface doesn't require cracking to be enjoyed. She perhaps came closest to the unstated evils of her world -- the sexual, class, and colonial injustices that ensured the comfort of her characters -- in the lightly regarded Mansfield Park. Its glimpses into working-class squalor, marital infidelity, and the heart of darkness of the slave trade would probably have been submerged beneath the set designs of another Merchant/Ivory production. Not so with Canadian director Patricia Rozema, whose feminist agenda has inspired the playful surfaces of films such as I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing and When Night Is Falling. Her spirited, flawed, but ultimately triumphant adaptation of the novel (and, mysteriously, the author's "letters and journals") has its share of crinoline and courtyards but also toys with a subtext of patriarchal tyranny.

Not that the book's heroine is much of a model for empowerment. At best a passive-aggressive nudge in the original, mousy Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor) is granted refuge from the poverty of her hopeless family by her rich aunt and uncle, Lady (Lindsay Duncan, who also plays Fanny's mother) and Sir Thomas Bertram (a chilling Harold Pinter), who enable her to move from her benighted seaside hovel (if nothing else, this is the first Austen adaptation to include cockroaches, not to mention nudity and hints of lesbianism and child abuse) to the intimidating estate of the title.

Enduring a mildly Jane Eyre-ish upbringing, Fanny is slighted by her spoiled, insipid cousins Julia (Justine Waddell) and Maria (Victoria Hamilton). But her sensitive cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) sympathizes with her and encourages her hobby of writing bodice-ripping romances -- not unlike those of the juvenile Jane Austen. Also suggestive of Austen are Fanny's tart, irreverent letters to her sister back home, which she reads aloud to us over satiric scenes of life at Mansfield Park: Lady Bertram's nodding off from her opium apéritif (a non-Austen addition); the meanness and vanity of her aunt Norris (Sheila Gish); the alarming dissolution of her cousin Tom (James Purefoy); and the overall luxury, triviality, and tedium of her adopted home. Unstated by Fanny, but obvious to the viewer, is her deep, seemingly unrequited crush on the strait-laced Edmund.

Fanny's cutting acumen and comments are a big departure from the put-upon goody-goody of the novel -- indeed, she takes on some of the more charming traits of the much feistier and entertaining Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz), the effect of which is to render Fanny's character contradictory and Mary's one-dimensional. A breath of vitality for staid old Mansfield Park, Mary arrives with her brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola) just as the forbidding Sir Thomas leaves with eldest son Tom to settle some difficulties with his West Indies properties. Bored, indolent, and vaguely dissipated, the Crawfords seek to spark up their dull rural stay by stirring up trouble with the natives. Mary takes a shine to Edmund, and Henry, after flirting with her cousins, ultimately courts Fanny.

She resists, to the incomprehension of all, partly because she sees him for the cad he is. But the main reason for her refusal in Rozema's version is Fanny's belief that an arranged betrothal is a form of bondage that reduces her to chattel. This conviction is confirmed when Sir Thomas returns and she discovers the real source of Mansfield Park's wealth and young Tom's disaffection in the latter's sketchpad of his sojourn at his father's plantation.

All well and good for today's sensibilities, but such a response does not make much sense for a woman in 1804, no matter how ahead of her time. Rozema's specifying of the horrors of Sir Thomas's West Indian estate and their parallel with the treatment of women at Mansfield Park, though heavyhanded, is insightful. Making her heroine an anachronistic mouthpiece for '90s political correctness is not. Neither is her confuting the meek but unyielding point of view of Fanny with the irony of the author. Such misjudgments undermine what is otherwise an ingenious and economical adaptation of a sprawling and ambiguous novel. After this peek beneath Austen's brilliant brocade, every other adaptation will seem a little clueless.


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