"MANSFIELD PARK" (2007) Review
There have been three screen adaptations of Jane Austen's 1814 novel, "Mansfield Park". And I have just finished viewing the most recent one - a ninety (90) minute television movie that first aired on the ITV network in March 2007.
As many Austen fans know, "MANSFIELD PARK" told the story of an English girl sent at the age of 10 to live with her maternal aunt and the latter's wealthy family at a vast estate called Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is treated as a poor relation of the Bertram family, as a semi-servant for her aunt, Lady Bertram. Only second son, Edmund, treats her with any real kindness. As a result, Fanny finds herself romantically in love with her cousin after eight years at Mansfield Park. Her feelings come to naught when the Bertram family becomes acquainted with a pair of sophisticated siblings named Henry and Mary Crawford. While Henry amuses himself with Fanny's cousins, Maria and Julia Bertram; Edmund falls in love with Mary, who returns his affections. Jealous over Edmund's romance with Mary, Fanny is oblivious of Henry's sudden interest to her. And when he makes it obvious with a proposal of marriage, Fanny finds herself divided between her true feelings about both Edmund and Henry, and her uncle Sir Thomas' desire to see her married to an eligible man of wealth.
"MANSFIELD PARK" was one of three Jane Austen adaptations aired by the ITV during the spring of 2007. All three movies possessed a running time of at least 90 minutes. Yet, for some reason, the production for "MANSFIELD PARK" seemed like a cheap television production, in compare to "PERSUASION" and "NORTHANGER ABBEY". It had nothing to do with the changes to Austen story, made by screenwriter Maggie Wadey. However, I do suspect that some of the changes were a result of the movie's budget. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that the budget had a lot to do with my dissatisfaction with "MANSFIELD PARK".
Of the three movies aired for ITV's "The Jane Austen Season", "MANSFIELD PARK" was the only one that was limited to one setting. Although Austen's novel was mainly set on the Bertram estate, it also included the Rushworth family's estate, Sotherton, the Mansfield Park parsonage occupied by Dr. and Mrs. Grant, and heroine Fanny Price's hometown of Portsmouth. Thanks to Wadey's script, the production did not include the setting of the Mansfield Park parsonage and Portsmouth. Henry and Mary Crawford were never seen at the parsonage. And to prevent shifting the setting to Portsmouth, Wadey's script allowed Sir Thomas Bertram to isolate Fanny at the estate . . . alone, instead of shipping her back to her immediate family in Portsmouth. This robbed the television viewers of a chance to meet Fanny's immediate family, aside from brother William. Another change was made by Wadey that seemed to reflect the movie's limited budget. Instead of a ball, a picnic was held in Fanny's honor by the Bertrams, following Maria Bertram's marriage to Mr. Rushworth. A picnic, instead of a ball. How cheap could one get?
Another aspect of "MANSFIELD PARK" that rubbed me the wrong way turned out to be the fast pacing. The television production moved at such a fast pace that I could barely blink before the scene featuring the Rushworths' wedding appeared. In fact, the entire story from Fanny's arrival at Mansfield Park to Maria's marriage to Mr. Rushworth seemed to move at an extremely fast and somewhat unsatisfying pace. If there is one thing about Wadey's script that did not move me one way or the other was its approach to the topic of slavery. She turned out to be the only screenwriter who adhered to Austen's novel. The 1999 movie allowed the topic of the Bertram family's participation in slavery to become a major theme in the movie. The 1983 miniseries completely ignored the subject. However, this version followed Austen's novel by allowing Fanny to question Sir Thomas about his role as a slave owner, before dropping the subject altogether.
Remember the outrage over Fanny Price's characterization in Patricia Rozema's 1999 adaptation of the novel? Well, there were some changes made by Wadey in this movie. Maggie O'Neill's portrayal of Fanny's Aunt Norris seemed less comic and broad than any other version I have encountered. Normally, I would applaud such a change. But one of the more entertaining aspects of "MANSFIELD PARK" has always been the use of Aunt Norris as a comic figure. O'Neill's Aunt Norris struck me as slightly boring. Also, Wadey's characterization of Mary Crawford struck me as slightly cold . . . darker. Portrayed by the talented Hayley Atwell, this version of Mary seemed to lack a sense of humor or true wit. Atwell's Mary never really tried to form a friendship with Fanny or display any kindness toward the latter. I got the feeling that Wadey deliberately portrayed Mary in this cold fashion to discourage sympathy or any other kind of positive feelings toward her. Because of this, Atwell was almost forced to portray Mary as a one-note villainess. Almost. Thankfully, the actress manage to somewhat rise the character above such mediocrity. Michelle Ryan made a lovely Maria Bertram. Unfortunately, her character failed to make an impact on the television screen, thanks to Wadey's limited handling of her character.
But not all of Wadey's characterizations irritated me. I liked her handling of the Lady Bertram character, portrayed by Jemma Redgrave. Instead of the vague and selfish woman portrayed by both Angela Pleasence and Lindsay Duncan, Redgrave portrayed Lady Bertram as a concerned parent and a woman with a deep interest in her children's love lives, if not their moral compasses. Douglas Hodge made a first-rate Sir Thomas Bertram, in all of his intimidating glory. He had taken the role as an to his mentor, actor/director Harold Pinter, who portrayed the role in Patricia Rozema's 1999 adaptation. James D'Arcy made an entertaining Tom Bertram. His sharp bon mots kept me smiling through most of the movie's first half. Rory Kinnear's portrayal of Mr. Rushworth seemed spot on. It seemed a pity that Wadey's script did not allow him the chance for a deeper characterization.
Both Blake Ritson and Joseph Beattie portrayed the two men in Fanny's life - her cousin Edmund Bertram and other suitor Mary Crawford. Ritson failed to make me like Edmund as a character. But this was no reflection on his skills as an actor. I simply dislike Edmund. But Ritson is the third actor to give an excellent performance in the role. He perfectly conveyed all of Edmund's traits that I heartily despise. When I first saw "MANSFIELD PARK", I was a little reluctant to praise Beattie's performance. I now realize that my judgement of his portrayal had been rushed. At first, he seemed like a womanizing stalker. But once his character began to fall in love in Fanny, Beattie conveyed a great deal of warmth and subtlety into the role.
Even Billie Piper's performance as Fanny Price seemed a lot different than Sylvestra Le Touzel and Frances O'Connor's extreme takes on the character. Due to Wadey's script and Piper's portrayal was not Le Touzel's wooden Fanny or O'Connor's Jane Austen 2.0 characterization. Piper's Fanny was quiet, but without the passive aggression that I found so exasperating in Austen's novel. When I first saw "MANSFIELD PARK", I believed that Piper's Fanny also lacked the hypocrisy of the previous version. I realize that I had blinded myself from what was obvious on the screen. Although Fanny did not indulge in heavily criticizing Mary Crawford behind the latter's back, or hid her dislike and jealousy behind a facade of moral outrage; she did express hypocrisy. Like her predecessors, Piper's Fanny failed to be honest with Henry Crawford about the real reason behind her rejection of his marriage proposal.
Visually, "MANSFIELD PARK" is beautiful to behold. Nick Dance's photography was sharp and filled with beautifully lush colors. It is a pity that the movie's budget limited it to one setting. Tim Hutchinson's production designs contributed to Dance's lush photography of Newby Hall in Yorkshire, which served as the Bertram estate. And Mike O'Neill's costume designs were absolutely beautiful - especially those costumes for the Bertram women and Mary Crawford.
What is my final verdict of "MANSFIELD PARK"? Honestly? Of the three movies for ITV's "Jane Austen's Season", it seemed the least impressive. It could boast some first-rate performances, along with great costumes and photography. Unfortunately, the movie's fast pacing in the first half and its limited budget did not serve it well. In the end, I believe "MANSFIELD PARK" could have benefited from a longer running time and bigger budget.