"Mansfield Park"
A film Review by
Linda L˙pez McAlister
On "The Women's Show"

Well, I finally got to see "Mansfield Park" and it was just as wonderful as I had suspected it would be. For one thing, I really like the films that have been made recently based on Jane Austen's novels. But, more importantly, I think Patricia Rozema, the writer and director of this film, is one of the most gifted feminist filmmakers working today, right up there with Marlene Gorris and Jane Campion when it comes to making wonderful films. If you have never seen her 1987 delight called "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing" you have a real treat waiting for you in the video store. I thought her next feature film "Night Is Falling" was less successful, but she is back to her old form with "Mansfield Park."

First, the screenplay is intelligent and witty. It is drawn both from Austen's novel "Mansfield Park" and her own early diaries and letters, leading one to suspect that the film is, to a certain extent, a biographical work about Austen's own experiences.

In contrast to Rozema's earlier films, this is a big budget major film. The cast is large and expert (including playwright Harold Pinter who does a magnificent job of playing Sir Thomas Bertram, the West Indies slave trader who is the master of Mansfield Park). The heroine is Fanny Price (played by Australian-born actor Frances O'Connor) a poor relation to the Bertrams. Her mother was one of them but married "beneath her" for love and ended up living in a squalid section of Portsmouth with more children than she can manage and in dire poverty. She sends her eldest daughter, Fanny, to live with the Bertrams but more as a servant than a family member. Though they are mostly very kind to her, it's made clear that she is not their social equal, at least not in Sir Thomas's eyes. The younger son, Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller) becomes her dear friend and confidant and shares her views on social reform and the immorality of slavery.

When a brother and sister pair, Henry and Mary Crawford, (played by the most attractive Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz) appear one day for an extended visit, the household is turned topsy-turvy. Henry dallies with Maria Bertram who's engaged to a rich dolt from London. Edmund falls for Mary Crawford. Then Henry falls for Fanny and asks for her hand in marriage. To Sir Thomas's great surprise and annoyance, Fanny declines the offer. And no amount of bullying and raging can make her change her mind. For this insubordination Sir Thomas ships her back to Portsmouth. Her real reasons for not wanting to marry Henry are that she thinks he's an untrustworthy rake and the fact that she loves Edmund. She's an independent woman, indeed, heeding her own instincts and judgement, in 1806!

Rozema shoots her film in such a way that we in the audience totally identify with Fanny and we cry when she does and laugh with her too. Incidentally, there is great humor in the film, mostly visual rather than spoken but a good reflection of Austen's own wry observations. There is a scene at a ball where all these young people, Fanny, Edmund, Henry, and Mary are doing a typical dance of the time, something like a minuet, that Rozema manages to turn into an unimaginably erotic experience through her camera work and editing and a great deal of gazing by all and sundry. It's great.

To find out how this narrative of mismatched lovers turns out you'll have to see the film yourself. Which I recommend highly.

For the Women's Show this is Linda L˙pez McAlister on Women and Film.

Copyright 1999 by Linda L. McAlister. All rights reserved.