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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Jane Austen once wrote, "Happiness in marriage is a matter of chance." The English novelist, whose works have been the subject of many film revivals lately, once accepted a man's proposal but got cold feet and backed down the following morning. Much of her thought and feeling infuse her works, which at times appear so in-your-face autobiographical that you wonder whether directors of movie adaptations are creating biopics. In the new Miramax film "Mansfield Park"--culled and compressed to some extent from her novel of the same name but also utilizing assorted notes that Austen made over the years--the principal focus is on a writer. We need not ponder this character's real identity. Like Austen herself, Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor) wrote exuberant fantasies as a teen, some satiric histories, and ultimately was able to set her more mature ideas on paper. While the novel showed Fanny to be restrained and passive, Patricia Rozema--who directs this delightful, nay even adorable picture--puts a contemporary spin on the tale of romance, isolation, adultery, betray and snobbery. And it works. Fanny becomes a virtual feminist icon, an independent-minded, rebellious woman who knows her own mind and will not settle for a man she does not love despite the poverty that threatens to accompany her tenacious spirit.

"Mansfield Park" displays some of the grandeur of previous Austen adaptations but when compared to Douglas McGrath's "Emma," Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility" and even the relatively understated "Persuasion" of Roger Mitchell comes across as almost a tightly-budgeted period piece. The capacious manor of the title and the views of the striking English countryside across which glide stately carriages are there, but with so much of the action taking place within the walls of the estate, "Mansfield Park" could have enjoyed a place on the commercial stage as well. Even the obligatory excesses usually present in dance scenes are curbed in favor of an emphasis on close-ups of the performers' facial expressions and body language. These restrains may take away from the opulence we've come to expect of, say, Merchant-Ivory works but they serve to enhance the story's wit, intelligence, occasionally pungent satire.

In one scene of the story, Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz), a manipulating, self-seeking member of the wealthy family headed by Sir Thomas Betram (Harold Pinter), declares, "After all, this is 1806"--making a point that people should discuss business up front, without inhibition, even if the intent is grasping. The England of 1806 still tolerated slavery, though the institution was soon to die and to threaten the fortunes of many a rich estate including Sir Thomas Bertram's. While Bertram accumulated his wealth from the work of his slaves in Antigua, Fanny Price, a member of the family, continued to live in Portsmouth with her poverty- stricken mother, who had married for love and was therefore relegated to a harried life in a bug-infested shack. As a favor to her, Sir Thomas Bertram invites the young Fanny Price (Hannah Taylor Gordon) to move into Mansfield Park, where she is promptly put in her place by the snobbish Mrs. Norris (Sheila Gish), who is the sister of both Mrs. Price and Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan). Though Norris instructs all that the small girl is not the social equal of the rest of the family, Fanny is befriended by her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), with whom she reads her secret letters and farcical little history of England. Years later, Fanny is pursued by the charming Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola), a man who is "loved by not loving"), getting a chance to fit into Mansfield Park as an equal if she'd consent to his proposal of marriage.

"Mansfield Park" is filled with perhaps more humor than pathos, making it an eminently enjoyable viewing experience. Some of the amusement comes from the bad match consciously made by Maria Bertram (Victoria Hamilton) with the manor's foppish Mr. Rushworth (Hugh Bonneville), propelling her to enter into an adulterous relationship with the rakish Crawford. The enervated Lady Bertram serves as a regular sight gag, sleeping through much of the story under the influence of opium and alcohol, her beloved pug resting perpetually on her lap. Political points are made as Bertram's sickly son returns from Antigua, his notebook filled with wrenching drawings of the slave trade there, while the principal tension comes from the suppressed romantic longings between Fanny and Edmund--the latter being the one decent fellow in this dysfunctional family, who self- destructively admires the conniving Mary while fearing his passion for Fanny.

Frances O'Connor, an Australian actress, gives her character all the required depth. Fanny, who is Jane Austen's raisonneur, is intelligent, sharp-tongued, tenacious, one who is willing to wait for Edmund to come around with a marriage proposal. The most touching moment in the story comes when Edmund tells her toward the conclusion that he has loved Fanny all his life. Harold Pinter, yes the Harold Pinter, makes one of his rare appearances on the screen as an authoritarian paterfamilias whose feelings about slavery are about to invert, while Embert Davidtz turns out a performance as a personality who is as intelligent as Fanny but who uses her faculties in Machiavellian ways that lead to her implosion.

"Mansfield Park" gets its title from a chief judge of England who had handed down a ruling limiting the practice of slavery in his country. In the film, director Rozema appropriately gleans some characters from the novel while discarding others for economy and dramatic impact, making this a delightful (if unusually low-keyed for the genre) motion picture experience.

Copyright 1999 Harvey Karten

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