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Mansfield Park

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 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 Greg King
3½ stars out of 4

The third, and most autobiographical, of Jane Austen's novels, Mansfield Park tells the story of a young girl from an impoverished family who is raised on the estate of wealthy relatives in the English countryside. This is a witty, articulate and beautifully observed tale that retains the lyrical quality of Austen's prose as well as the irony with which she observed the social mores and conventions of British society during the late 18th and early 19th century.

This delightful comedy remains faithful to those themes common to Austen's novels (Emma, Sense And Sensibility, etc), but gives the material a decidedly feminist outlook. It explores the class system of England and savages the hypocrisy and double standards of the upper class, who preach morality and virtue at home but practice debauchery when abroad visiting their holdings in the colonies. It also suggests that marriage for wealth and status does not always lead to happiness. And, while marriage for love is a more noble option, it also brings with it some emotional baggage.

Sex has always been a part of Austen's novels, but until now it has merely been hinted at, never seen. In Mansfield Park, Canadian director Patricia Rozema (When Night Is Falling, etc) brings it out into the open, making for a bolder, more lusty interpretation that may shock the purists. Rozema has also drawn on Austen's own letters and journals to flesh out the narrative. Rozema may have taken numerous liberties with Austen's novel, but her witty and intelligent script and its modern sensibilities make Mansfield Park relevant for today's audiences.

Australian actress Frances O'Connor (Love And Other Catastrophes, etc) does a superb job as Austen's semi-autobiographical heroine Fanny Price, who undergoes a rags-to-riches like transformation. At a young age Fanny is taken away from the squalor of her impoverished family in Portsmouth and sent to the country estate of her rich relatives, the Bertrams. There she is put to good use in the household, as well as gaining an education along the way.

Fanny blossoms into a beautiful, articulate, literate young woman with strong opinions and an independent spirit, although some of her ideas are met with disapproval by her guardians. Despite her forthright nature though, Fanny is also the typically virginal Austen heroine, who finds herself caught between two suitors. On one hand there is the handsome but narcissistic and shallow cad Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola, recently seen in Best Laid Plans, etc), who showers her with protestations of love and happiness. On the other hand there is Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller, from Trainspotting, etc), whom she has known since childhood, but who is retiring and reluctant to admit his feelings for her. Meanwhile, Henry's sister Mary (Embeth Davidtz) has designs for Edmund and the Bertram fortune.

Rozema handles the romantic entanglements and machinations with a dexterity that brings this potentially staid period melodrama to life. The characters are beautifully brought to life by the wonderful cast. O'Connor is superb and suffuses her character with plenty of fierce determination and spunk. Playwright Harold Pinter brings plenty of bluster to his performance as the patriarchal Sir Thomas Bertram.

While Mansfield Park may not be for the purists, it is a vastly enjoyable, lavishly cinematic spectacle. The production design is superb, and Michael Coulter's cinematography simply luscious.

Copyright 1999 Greg King

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