Mansfield Park, the Movie(s)

Okay, one more rant about Mansfield, and then I’ll have done. Promise. (What? NO! No, no, I do not have my fingers crossed behind my back. Nope.)

So I watched the 1999 movie last night, for the first time since it came out (back then it was on VHS – dinosaur age). And I find I don’t despise it as much as I did then. I knew which sections to fast-forward over to avoid being traumatised again by images of Sir Thomas torturing his slaves (yup. Torture. In Austen. I mean…). And I could do without the immediately following scene of Fanny walking in on Maria and Henry Crawford in bed, going at it hammer and tongs. Knowing those scenes were in there, they didn’t have the power to overshadow the whole rest of the film the way they did when I first watched it; I was so offended at them then I had forgotten about the whole rest of it – they were just the pinnacle of how badly this movie misinterpreted Austen.

So this time I watched it with more detachment, and I have to say, it’s not really as bad as I had remembered it. For a certain value of it, it even sticks closer to the book than the 2007 version – but only for a certain value. It does keep to the basic plot line, including the Portsmouth scene which the newer version unfortunately leaves out. And it keeps all the characters, and quite a bit of the dialogue from the book. And then it sort of shakes everything around a bit, stands several characters on their heads, and makes a whole new story out of whole.

First of all, what’s good: the casting for Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) and Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola) is great; the way they play them is, personality-wise, pretty much the way they appear in the book. Henry is a charmer, Edmund serious and kind. Another thing that’s good is that Susan is left in the story; in fact, she replaces William (as the sibling who is most missed by Fanny and has plot-expository letters written to her, but not in any other way). I also approve of the costuming and hairdressing, which is actually authentic-ish.

Now, the changes – where to begin? As a matter of fact, this Mansfield Park movie runs along the lines of the recent adaptation of The Hobbit – it’s an entertaining film if you forget having read the book. So I’m not going to go into everything I disapprove of; we’d still be here tomorrow.

However, the biggest, most glaring, fantastic change is the character of Fanny herself. In the theatrical trailer, they advertise the movie as being about a “spirited heroine” who’s going to “turn the tables” on everyone. Uh… You’ve got to wonder what heroine that might be; certainly not the Fanny Price Austen created. They might as well make a Pride and Prejudice movie with a shy, retiring, overly sensitive Elizabeth Bennet… In fact, Frances O’Connor’s Fanny comes across a lot – a huge lot – like Elizabeth. She’s dark-haired, dark-eyed, bouncy, vigorous, outspoken, and smiles big beaming smiles at all and sundry, most noticeably at Henry Crawford, with whom she pretty much falls in love – and he definitely with her, right off the bat, deeply and desperately, and you can’t blame him, the way she flirts with him. Oh yes, Fanny flirts, and teases, talks back to Sir Thomas, tells Mary Crawford what she thinks of her, and… Oh dear. What book have those movie makers been reading? I don’t have anything against Frances O’Connor; I’ve really enjoyed her in other movies. But she’s completely mis-cast for Fanny.

As is, I’m sorry to say, Billie Piper in the 2007 version. Again, I like Billie – she’s great in Doctor Who but, like Frances O’Connor, she’s far too outgoing. Her vivacious smiles just don’t sit well on “creepmouse” Fanny (and the 21st-century hairdo doesn’t help, either). Fanny is delicate, shy, sweet, quiet – neither of these actresses pulls it off. Neither of the movies pulls it off. It’s like nobody gets Fanny. Elizabeth and Emma, those are easy to understand – there’s been five good movie adaptations made of their stories in the last eighteen years, all of which really get the characters (in different ways, but they read well). But Fanny, they just can’t bring Fanny to a screen, it seems.

I wonder if Fanny is just too Regency, too early-19th-century, to be understood 200 years later. Lizzie, Emma, and even Mary Crawford, are the emancipated young women we’ve been taught to be – fearless, independent, energetic, not in need for the support of a man (“A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle”, that sort of thing). Fanny, on the other hand, can’t even walk for half an hour without needing Edmund’s arm to lean on. She’s so emotionally delicate that just thinking about Maria’s elopement with Crawford has her practically passing out (which is why the scene in the movie of her walking in on them having sex is so very wrong – the Fanny of the book would be so traumatised she’d die from the shock. Literally.). It’s a good thing Fanny never encounters any geese in her walks or horseback rides, because she certainly would never say “boo” to even the smallest gosling.

Unless – unless the gosling dared to threaten her value system. Delicate, shy, quiet and retiring Fanny might be – but with an inner strength that stands up to them all. This tender little blossom has a core of steel when her sense of right or wrong is threatened.

And that, perhaps, it what makes her so difficult to understand for modern audiences. We just can’t buy that someone with this much inner power wouldn’t show it outwardly, physically and emotionally. We think that so much depth, so much strength, has to show itself in sparkling eyes, wide smiles and a bouncy gait, or at the very least that it can’t go along with physical weakness, low self-esteem and extreme shyness. But it does. In Fanny’s case, it does – and I’m convinced that even in the 21st century, people like her (of either sex) aren’t all that rare.

Now if only someone would make a movie about them…

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