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Mansfield Park

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Mansfield Park

Starring: Embeth Davidtz, Jonny Lee Miller
Director: Patricia Rozema
Rated: R
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: November 1999
Genre: Drama


*Also starring: Alessandro Nivola, Jonny Lee Miller, Harold Pinter, Lindsay Duncan, Sheila Gish, James Purefoy, Hugh Bonneville, Justine Waddell



Review by Steve Rhodes
3½ stars out of 4

"Of course I love her, but there are as many forms of love as there are moments in time," Fanny Price's constant childhood companion, Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller), says of his love for her now that they're grown. In a tale of love expressed and love repressed, the protagonists' emotions are exquisitely nuanced. In 1806 England, where the story is set, the citizens were strictly bound by a rigid set of moral rubrics. They dared not live outside these rules of society, lest something unthinkable happen to them, like being shunned by others.

The screen adaptation of Jane Austen's MANSFIELD PARK surpasses even the highly successful EMMA and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, thanks to the talented writing and direction of Patricia Rozema (I'VE HEARD THE MERMAIDS SINGING). (For the record, my favorite movie based on an Austen novel is still 1995's PERSUASION.)

The beauty of this lavish and gorgeous production isn't in the costumes or the buildings, it is in the acting and the script. Unspoken words express powerful although repressed emotions, and spoken words, thanks to the original Austen novel and to Rozema's screenplay, are stronger still. ("There is no shame in wealth my dear," Fanny's impoverished mother reminds her. "Remember I married for love.")

Like most Austen novels, the basic plot is that of a soap opera. This is not meant as a put-down, but as a fact. Austen took what should be mundane and raised it up several orders of magnitude with the depth of her writing. Still, the basic structure is one of the convoluted love affair in which everyone seems to love someone else. Love, however, was anything but simple back in the early 1800s, as social status, money and appearances complicated enormously the affairs of the heart. ("His sole interest is in being loved, not in loving," Fanny says perceptively of one of her would-be suitors.)

The free-spirited Fanny Price is played with an endearing charm by Australian actress Frances O'Connor. (Hannah Taylor-Gordon briefly does a wonderfully sweet turn as the young Fanny.) Fanny, who grew up living a life of squalor, goes, when about 13, to live with her Aunt and Uncle, Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan) and Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter), in their lavish estate called Mansfield Park. It is there that she falls forever in love with her cousin and constant companion, Edmund Bertram.

Fanny is a voracious reader and a wild writer, who sets out to compose nothing less than a history of England. Like everything, she finishes what she starts out to do. Fanny is a proud woman who seizes all of the control that her dire circumstances will allow. Although she lives in a mansion, she is usually relegated to second class status. She isn't even permitted to have a fire in her cold and damp attic bedroom.

Rozema, who did extensive research on Austen, takes liberties with the novel, but Rozema claims, only in the spirit of Austen as she expressed herself in her letters. Rozema turns Fanny into a stand-in for Austen herself. Some may think that the brief sex scene and the brief female-to-female flirtation some may think will cause Austen to turn over in her grave, but the scenes are mild and short and fit perfectly within the context of the storyline.

Rozema's staging possesses real magic. Fanny's narration is accomplished by having her write letters to her sister Susan (Sophia Myles), which Fanny speaks to the camera. In another inspired approach, the movie has the nineteenth century equivalent of a musical telegram, complete with fireworks and flying doves.

The rich supporting cast also includes Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz, as brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, who figure prominently in the story's love polygon.

"It could have ended differently, I suppose, but it didn't," Fanny reflects at the conclusion. And the most remarkable thing about this engrossing character study is that, if had ended differently, it probably would have worked just as well. The journey itself is truly the reward.

MANSFIELD PARK runs 1:50. It is not rated but might be R for one brief scene of sex and nudity and would be fine for kids around 12 and up.

The film opens nationwide in the United States on Wednesday, November 24. In the San Jose area it will be playing at one of the Camera Cinemas.

Copyright 1999 Steve Rhodes

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