Monday, 11 May 2009


“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” - John Le Carré

We watched a rather puzzling film at the weekend, one which perhaps had the best intentions, but through expediency, factors relating to its direction, marketing considerations, and the pandering to modern tastes and expectations, fell rather widely off the mark. The film was Patricia Rozema’s, 1999 “Mansfield Park” an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, which also happened to be the author’s favourite. The film was a BBC production, which sets a certain level of expectations in the viewers, as English costume dramas are so very well done in terms of costumes, sets, acting and general “feel” of authenticity when one watches them.

The plot concerns itself with Fanny Price, a poor relation and daughter of a woman who has married “for love” rather than money, who at age 10 goes to live at Mansfield Park, the estate of her aunt's husband, Sir Thomas. Fanny is clever and imaginative, a writer with an ironic sense and fine moral compass (Jane Austen being autobiographical to a certain extent). At Mansfield Park she comes especially close to Edmund, Sir Thomas's younger son. As Fanny grows up, she becomes beautiful as well as intelligent and charming. She comes to the attention of a neighbour, the well-off Henry Crawford. Sir Thomas supports this match, but to his displeasure, Fanny asks Henry to prove himself worthy. Edmund becomes attached to Henry’s sister, much to Fanny’s chagrin. Tom, Sir Thomas’ eldest son exposes Sir Thomas's fortunes as having originated in New World slavery. Fanny finds herself in an embarrassing situation where her position at Mansfield Park becomes untenable...

This is the bare bones of the plot to which Ms Rozema has confined herself. Sure enough to condense a novel of the breadth and subtlety of Austen’s work is difficult to do in two hours of film, so many essential characters and plot twists have been removed, that the husk remaining is rather oversimplified and caricature-like. This contributes to some of the puzzling aspects of the film and the inexplicable motivation of some of the characters. By reducing to the bare boens of the plot, leaving many characters and stressing the wrong parts (or even adding some parts that were not in the novel), the film becomes a poor adaptation.

The actors did a good job nevertheless, especially considering the limitations of the script (And incidentally Ms Rozema is responsible for the script as well as the direction). Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price is rather too feisty and more reminiscent of other Austen heroines. Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund does a relatively good job, Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas is good, but my money goes to Lindsay Duncan in the double role of Fanny’s mother and her sister, Lady Bertram, Sir Thomas’s wife. Hugh Bonneville as Rushworth as the cuckolded husband is good and the Crawford siblings played by Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola make a good pair.

The film satisfies the casual viewer because the “authentic feel” is still there, and if this casual viewer has not read the novel, he or she would be infinitely less demanding and more easily pleased with Rozema’s film. However, having read the novel (and enjoyed it, as it is a biting satire of social mores and a subtle commentary on the social structure of Austen’s time), the film lacks depth and is quite inconsistent, emphasising all the wrong things and giving a rather garbled and mangled account of the novel. Maybe if Ms Rozema had changed the title and the characters’ names, it would have been a passable “period drama”, even though it is too modern in its characterisation for that. If you decide to see it and have read the novel don’t set your expectations too high, but you still may get annoyed. If you haven’t read the novel, don’t set your expectations too high and you may enjoy it.

1 comment:

  1. i HAVE read the novel and i don't think this film was a good adaptation at all.