Sunday, 6 May 2012

Mansfield Park (1999)

This film is the worst Austen adaptation that I've ever seen and is just a massive Epic Fail. What especially angers me is that this film shouldn't have even been made in the first place. In the mid 90s there had been a renewed interest in Jane Austen and several of her novels were re-adapted. In 1995 a film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility came out and the BBC produced adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. Then in 1996 two adaptations of Emma came out - a movie version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and an ITV adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale. This particular film was a late addition to the party. However when the director/screenwriter Patricia Rozema was approached to make a Mansfield Park movie she rejected the offer - on the grounds that she hated the book and its heroine Fanny Price. But she then changed her mind when the producers agreed to let her make changes to the novel and "improve" Austen's story and characters. Now I usually don't mind it much when film adaptations leave out things from the books they're based from. I do understand that films have a limited running time. What really annoys me is when film adaptations make changes to books, especially when the changes are made for no good reason. This film makes a lot of changes for no good reason! It's unfaithful and inaccurate to the book and is quite rightly very unpopular with Austen fans.

The main reason why this film is so unpopular with Austen fans is that many of the characters are almost completely unrecognisable from their book counterparts. This is especially true of Fanny Price. Fanny is no longer a shy, timid girl who's so used to mistreatment from her relatives that she's actually moved to tears when her uncle allows her to keep a fire in the room where she spends most of her day. No. In this film Fanny is now a bold, lively, feisty, self-confident, early feminist sort of character who never shys away from speaking her mind. In the rare moments of the film when Fanny says or does something that actually happens in the book it seems really out of character! Fanny has been changed to a combination of Elizabeth Bennet and a quasi-Jane Austen herself. Fanny writes stories and letters in this film that Austen actually wrote and sends them to her sister Susan (her brother William has been completely removed from this film). In the book Fanny doesn't even become close to Susan until she visits her family in Portsmouth. Fanny also gets drunk at a family party and another change from the book is that Fanny actually kisses Henry Crawford and accepts his marriage proposal! WHAT?! Presumably Rozema did this to echo Austen accepting the unfortunate Harris Bigg-Wither's marriage proposal only to change her mind and break off the engagement the next day. But seriously it's just plain wrong! In the book Fanny disliked and distrusted Henry Crawford. Yes, her feelings towards him did soften when Henry used his influence to get William promoted in the navy but she never wavered or backed down in her belief that she and Henry would make for a disastrous marriage. Despite her timidity Fanny stood up for herself when her uncle was putting enormous pressure on her to accept Henry's proposal. Yes, Fanny stood up for herself with much tears and trembling but she still showed strength of character nonetheless. By having Fanny accept Henry Crawford's proposal it gets rid of one of the best things about Fanny's character. Also, the scene where Fanny breaks off the engagement turns Henry Crawford into a victim and makes him too sympathetic. You feel really sorry for him. Perhaps Rozema was trying to make Fanny's character a little more palatable to a modern audience but I liked Fanny more the way Austen wrote her! I know that Book Fanny isn't everyone's cup of tea and that she may seem passive, overly self-deprecating and insipid but it's only natural that she should be like that. Austen knew what she was doing when she wrote the character. In the book Fanny leaves her family at the age of 9 or 10 to go and live with her wealthy relatives in their huge and imposing manor house. She is then bullied, neglected and treated like a slave by virtually all of her relations to the point where she feels almost worthless. She is never encouraged to hold or voice her own opinions. She never sees her family and most of them don't give a damn about her anyway. Therefore this film's attempt to make Fanny as witty, lively and outgoing as some of Austen's other heroines doesn't make the least bit of sense and isn't at all believable!

Fanny isn't the only character to be messed about in this film either. Sir Thomas is another example. In the film he's portrayed as far worse than he is in the book. In the book Sir Thomas is just a cold, stern, overbearing father. But in this film he's also an evil, dirty old man who rapes the slaves on his plantation! Additionally, Tom Bertram knows about his dad's evil activities and is deeply troubled. It's then implied that his irresponsible, immature behaviour is just a way of rebelling against his dad and coping with his depression. Mrs Bertram is an opium addict in this film which is ridiculous. Why can't she just be lazy and uninvolved like she is in the book? Oh and the Grants aren't even in this film either so we have no idea why the Crawfords are even hanging around Mansfield Park in the first place. And I know I've already mentioned that Fanny's brother William isn't in this film but it is a shame that he wasn't included. He was one of the few genuinely likeable characters in the book.

Another issue that I have with this film is that it's sexed-up. Henry is actually caught having sex with Maria at Mansfield Park in this film. And Rozema even includes lesbian undertones at one point in a scene between Fanny and Mary Crawford! (see left) This is a very bizarre scene that comes completely out of nowhere and is never touched on again. And you thought Andrew Davies was bad!

Yet another issue that I have with this film is that slavery is made a main focus of the story. Austen strongly disapproved of slavery herself but in the book I think there's only one explicit reference to slavery when Fanny asks her uncle a question about it. But slavery is mentioned far more prominently in this film which is a big mistake. Slavery was (and is) a terrible and evil thing but it wasn't a major part of Austen's novel. If you want to make an original historical romance that features slavery then I think that's all well and good. But slavery is just too important a subject to throw in haphazardly into an Austen novel in which slavery is barely mentioned at all just to create some dramatic tension! Not only is it disrespectful to Austen's novel it's actually pretty darn insulting to the people who had to endure slavery!

I can handle a few liberties being taken with books but this film is just too much. As an Austen fan I hate this film! It doesn't even succeed in being an unfaithful-but-entertaining film in its own right like the 1940 adaptation of Pride and PrejudiceMansfield Park may well be my least favourite Austen novel but it still deserves a much better adaptation than this. The only thing that I will praise it for is that the majority of the actors give good performances and do the best they can with the crappy material that they've been given to work with. Because of the actors this film may have actually been decent if it had had a different script and a different director. Frances O'Connor acts quite well in this for example and I suspect that she would have been able to pull off an Austen faithful portrayal of Fanny. Jonny Lee Miller gives a good performance as Edmund Bertram as well but I think he'll always be Knightley to me. The only actor that I wasn't so keen on was Embeth Davidtz. Her acting isn't bad but she looks far too old to play Mary Crawford and (although I don't want to sound harsh) she isn't attractive enough to play the character either. I'll finish this review with the film's trailer. Just look at it! Look at how unfaithful it is!



Rating: 1/5

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