Mansfield Park (1999)

       

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

Young Fanny Price has grown used to being ignored, used, and kicked around in modern society ever since being sent to live with her boorish aunt and uncle at Mansfield Park. Her one conciliation is her cousin Edmund, who manages to liven up many a dull hour in merriment. The pair are inevitably close friends, almost as brother and sister from their secrets and poetry readings to playful banter as they grow older. But one day, everything changes and a new face is brought to the manor...

 

Or rather, two new faces -- the renters of the nearby parsonage are one Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola) and his sister Mary (Embeth Davidtz). The former is an unabashed playboy while the latter is in all appearances a fortune hunter and maddening flirt. Fanny's cousins, Maria and Julia, are both taken with this extremely good looking new neighbor, despite the fact that Maria is engaged to a dull but moral Mr. Rushford (Hugh Bonniville) of the town. Henry does not appose the flirtation but rather embraces it, for, as he confides to his sister, he enjoys intrigues with women of unquestionable nature. Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) has taken a supreme interest in Mary, something Fanny (Frances O'Connor) secretly envies.  It is about this time Fanny comes into the knowledge that her uncle owns many slaves to work his plantations in India and she expresses some opposition toward the idea. Her relatives find her opinions appalling... all but Edmund, who believes that a sound mind is much more important than a pretty face. However, her shy thankfulness for his support is short lived when her uncle expresses the idea of a ball to introduce her to society (beings as she's gotten so "fetching") and hopefully hook her up with a wealthy young man.

 

Always below their station in life and having come from a poor family, she is more frightened of this opportunity than excited but on the night of the ball finds herself dancing in the arms of Henry Crawford, who has suddenly taken an interest in her. Maria (Victoria Hamilton) has been married, taking Julia (Justine Waddell) away with her on her honeymoon out of fear of being left entirely alone with her husband, and Fanny is alone at Mansfield Park... left to bide the attentions of Henry, who professes a deep and passionate love for her. Her uncle, of course, is ecstatic at the match with a man of good blood and and -- more importantly -- wealth. But she refuses the marriage and in punishment is sent home for a prolonged visit. Finding her family much changed, Fanny begins to miss her true home... and Edmund.

 

She manages to pass the time well in the company of her beloved sister... until the day Henry appears, determined to persuade her to marry him. Mansfield Park is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, exquisitely photographed and delicately edited with bold, airy rooms and breathtaking British countryside. However a few imperfections flaw this otherwise worthwhile film. One is a hint at lesbianism which cannot be overlooked in a scene between Fanny and Mary in which the former is eager to help her undress, and makes comments about her figure. This is entirely of the director's own making, for Jane Austen would be appalled. Another is a scene in which Fanny intrudes mistakenly to find Henry in bed with a married Maria. One of Maria's bare breasts is seen for an instant before she covers herself and hides her face in his chest. There is also brief flashes of a sketchbook belonging to Edmund's brother Thomas, who has protested at his father's use of slaves. In it are tortured sequences of rape, murder, and abuse. Several glimpses of women's bare breasts are shown but Fanny flips quickly and the pictures are only seen for a few seconds. Some mildly suggestive dialog is spattered here and there and varying amounts of cleavage are present.

 

Fanny proves steadfast in her morality, choosing the right  rather than the wrong and is very likable in herself. Edmund has aspirations to become a pastor and shows maturity and good sense throughout the film, even as his obsession with Mary progresses. It's a well put together production with passion in every frame and witty narration, all from Fanny's point of view. Lovers of the original novel will be disappointed as it bears little resemblance to the volume Austen penned, but if you're looking for a good regency period film and not necessarily thinking "Jane Austen," this is choice that will probably please. It's a pity the director felt the need to throw in some smut, for it's a good story rather reminiscent in places of Jane Eyre and very easily could have made a PG rating. Keep the fast forward button handy if you rent this one... or hunt up an edited copy through a friend. It may not have the innocence of Emma or Sense & Sensibility, but it is a charming -- if reluctant -- romance with a good heart.