Was Jane Austen a proto-feminist? Director Patricia Rozema certainly thinks so, and in her spirited, revisionist version of Mansfield Park she transforms the novel’s heroine, Fanny Price, into Austen’s onscreen alter ego.
Rozema’s screenplay derives not just from Austen’s 1814 novel, but incorporates her exuberant adolescent writings (stories, letters, journals). So young Fanny is introduced as a bright, natural-born storyteller whose imagination soars beyond her squalid surroundings. Her mother, it’s pointedly mentioned, married for love instead of social position, which led to her dire state of too little money and too many children. But 10-year-old Fanny can’t foresee how radically her future will be altered when she’s sent to live with her wealthy aunt’s family at their massive country estate, Mansfield Park.
The witty, feisty Fanny (Frances O’Connor) grows up determined to be a writer. She’s treated as a member of the Bertram family even though, technically, she’s little more than their servant. Fanny navigates these treacherous waters gracefully until she receives a marriage proposal from Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola), a rakish charmer who has skillfully penetrated the Bertrams’ closed social circle along with his equally charismatic, seductive sister, Mary (Embeth Davidtz).
Sir Thomas Bertram (playwright Harold Pinter), ever the patriarch, sanctions the match, but Fanny refuses to marry Henry, relying on her instinctive distrust of his feckless ways. She also gradually comes to realize that her feelings for beloved cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) are more than familial. A battle of wits commences that brings to the surface all the harsh realities that underlie their rarefied existence, including the fact that the Bertrams’ prosperity comes at the expense of slaves who work their West Indies plantation.
Canadian filmmaker Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, When Night is Falling) respectfully adheres to Regency-era manners and Austen’s narrative conventions while infusing Mansfield Park’s drawing-room intrigues with a restless, vibrant energy and extolling the modern perspective that women are more than just pretty property.
Patricia Rozema sees to it that Fanny Price writes her own happy ending, believing that a nonconformist Jane Austen would heartily approve.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].