29 April 2014
And speaking of busy nothings, the academic conference. I returned from one, and frankly, the very best part was sharing a room with one of my besties from grad school — and watching Mansfield Park (1999) together.
Keeping this blog has allowed me to see a pattern in my life: when April rolls around and the semester gets tough, the not-so-tough (me) watch period drama. Even better if it’s Jane Austen, because she’s so playful and hopelessly romantic that it takes me out of the semester at its worst.
It’s been so long since I saw this version of Mansfield Park that I’d forgotten the ways that it finesses the original Austen novel. Mostly for the better, as far as I’m concerned. Fanny (Frances O’Connor) isn’t painfully shy, sickly, and insipid like she is in the book, and the script by director Patricia Rozema lifts extensively from Austen’s letters and papers as a way to imagine Fanny’s lifelong correspondence with her younger sister Susie as well as her wordy, playful relationship with her cousin Edmund (Johnny Lee Miller). Fanny seems all the more appealing because of her gift for words — and less moralistic, as I sometimes found her character in the book. Other aspects don’t work as well, like the film’s elaboration of a complicated slaveholding backstory for the Bertrams, but that seems less important to me.
Clearly, if you’re going to like this film, you can’t be overly dedicated to the novel. I wouldn’t put up with that nonsense if it were Pride and Prejudice, but I’m willing to let Rozema improve on the less perfect Mansfield Park.
It doesn’t hurt that it starts with an eminently appealing little-girl version of Fanny. Taken away from her impoverished family to live with wealthy cousins at a young age, she has never been treated as an equal in the family — except by her cousin Edmund, the Bertrams’ younger son. From the cold little garret the Bertrams provided for her, she busies herself with the pleasures of her own imagination — rollicking gothic tales mailed off to her sister Susie, and an irreverent “History of England” for Edmund. In this respect, this version is far superior to the 2007 BBC/ Masterpiece version.
She might be shy, but Fanny has a wonderful inner life. One wants to be friends with her. As they grow up, she and Edmund develop a bond beyond words.
And it might all have turned out differently, I suppose … until the family receives a visit from the fashionable new neighbors, a brother and sister named Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz).
The film plays the Crawfords’ appearance to great effect — everything about them screams “danger!” so I wanted to clap my hands with delight, because you know the real story is about to begin.
Mary Crawford looks just like a spider, with her self-satisfied smile and ruffled collar. This is no idle comparison; Mary is a spider, and the target for her paralyzing bite is the impressionable Edmund — to Fanny’s horror.
Henry Crawford is a beast of a different sort. If his sister appears laser-focused, his own inclination is a vaguer kind of troublemaking. Pushed by Mrs. Bertram toward her younger daughter, Julia, he keeps his options open, flirting with the newly engaged Maria Bertram instead. Maria, engaged to an idiot, is happy to reciprocate.
The Crawfords entrance the entire Bertram clan. These two seem to flaunt every ordinary social convention. Which is all well and good while Fanny can withdraw to the background and observe their machinations — but everything changes when Henry turns his attention away from Maria and fixes his gaze, for the first time in his life, like a laser on Fanny.
She knows him too well to accept his offer of marriage. She cannot trust him. She knows his rakish character too well. But Rozema’s film toys with us, leads us to second-guess Henry’s motives. Does he not, suddenly, appear sincere? Does he not appear to love her? When her uncle sends her back home to live in her parents’ squalid home in Portsmouth, Henry follows and woos her, showing little alarm at her parents’ poverty and misery.
He’s charming and wonderful. He appears completely in love with her. And in a hasty moment, she accepts his proposal of marriage.
Only to change her mind. How can she marry him, even if Edmund is due to marry Mary Crawford?
And yet the film does a lovely job of making Henry seem like a true lover. He really has fallen for her, we believe — and even after things go sour, I continue to believe it. It’s such a nice spin on the story, for it shows (perhaps) his ability to change, and Fanny’s willingness to change her mind.
My grad school bestie pointed out that Edmund is a bit overly judgmental — as a wannabe clergyman, perhaps this comes naturally. But considering how much he has fallen for the mostly-immoral Mary Crawford, the judgy sternness seems a bit out of place.
Out of curiosity, which Edmund do you prefer? I’m inclined to find both adorable, but are they too obviously adorable? As in, am I getting fed an easy pair of soulful eyes here by a crass casting director? (Ritson has particularly soulful eyes, obvs.) I’m not sure that either one is as perfectly matched with his co-star as much as he ought to be. I mean, a true Austen tale ought to have a perfectly matched heroine and swain, amiright?
These are the questions that keep me up at night.
If you’re wondering which is the superior production, there’s no question: the 2007 may be a teensy bit more faithful to the book, but the 1999 wins hands down for the inclusion of all those delicious bits of Austen’s writing. Besides, Frances O’Connor makes a much better Fanny than Billie Piper. Most of all, the 2007 ITv production feels a bit as if everyone is acting solo before a green screen, with no sense of chemistry or drama between characters.
Sigh. This is one of those posts that rambles around. My attention is divided — and I keep staring at that stack of papers that I ought to have finished grading a week ago.
But perhaps this is all the more an endorsement of taking a look at the film as balm for the soul in these sad days of the late semester. Especially if you find yourself blissfully sharing a room with a bestie at a tedious conference of academics.