crap i have watched recently #28

mansfield parkI’ve been on an Austen kick lately and for some reason I decided to both reread Mansfield Park and watch two recent film adaptations.  This was an interesting experiment, to say the least.  Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s longer novels and it’s stuffed with lots of characters, scene changes, and moral quandaries.  Its heroine, Fanny Price, is not appealing to modern readers, primarily because she is not Elizabeth Bennett.   Although as honest, loyal, and stalwart in her morals as any other Austen heroine, she is both physically frail and emotionally passive.   She is pious and humble and painfully aware of her role as the poor relation.  Edmund, the cousin who is the the object of her affection, is a drip.  He is blind to Fanny’s obvious superiority of character and dotes on a woman who goes out of her way to be unsuitable.   It’s almost impossible to understand  Edmund’s obsession with Mary Crawford and equally hard to fathom why Fanny continues to love a man who forgets all about her for half the book.  Indeed, Edmund only realizes that he loves Fanny in the last couple of pages and the entire thing is anticlimactic.  That said, this is still an Austen book and it is loaded with sharply drawn character sketches and tastefully brutal satire.  It is not really so much a romance as an indictment of the slack morals that seemed to go hand in hand with modernity.  Also, for an Austen novel, it includes rather a lot of illicit sexuality.

Both film versions of Mansfield Park come in at less than two hours and thus allow for an interesting exploration of the nature of adaptation.  Long novels and short running times demand hard choices.  Vast chunks of the plot disappear, characters are combined or dispensed with entirely, and scenery changes that require location shooting are curtailed.   Characters and events may be altered to appeal to modern tastes, even in adaptations that are set in their intended period.   Sometimes this works and sometimes…well, sometimes it really doesn’t.

So, with no further ado, here is your Mansfield Park Smackdown!

Mansfield Park, 1999 (MP99) vs Mansfield Park, 2007 (MP07):

The Prices:  It’s probably no surprise that both movies take liberties with the characters, including Fanny herself.  MP99 portrays her as a sassy and articulate amalgamation of Elizabeth Bennett and Jane Austen.   No longer frail and obedient, she runs about the house with Edmund, gallops her horse, and talks back to her uncle.  The Fanny of MP07 is somewhat less pert but as portrayed by Rose Tyl…er, Billie Piper, she is a bleached blond with a modern hairdo who looks entirely out of place in Regency England.  It is likely that ITV wanted to capitalize on her popularity from Dr. Who and thus didn’t want her to look too period.  Whatever, it’s pretty distracting to always be expecting a blue box to show up on the lawn.  Fanny’s beloved brother William is missing entirely from MP99, effectively removing an enormous chunk of the Henry Crawford story line.  Instead Susan, a minor character in the book, is the sibling with whom Fanny is close and to whom she regularly sends humorous and irreverent letters.  MP07, in contrast, removes the Portsmouth Prices entirely except for William, who comes to visit Fanny at Mansfield Park.  In this version Fanny never goes to Portsmouth, effectively removing that huge chunk of story and once again cheating Henry Crawford of screen time.

The Bertrams:  Much havoc is wreaked upon the poor Bertram family in MP99.   The well-meaning if mostly clueless Sir Thomas becomes a creepy lecher who leers at Fanny, Mary Crawford, and his own two daughters.  There are hints that he has sexually abused both his daughters and his slaves.  His wife is an opium addict.   Eldest son Tom is given a conscience; his drunkenness and gambling are due to guilt over his complicity in slavery and not because he’s a bored young man with no purpose other than inheriting his father’s money.   Edmund and his sisters are relatively unscathed, although Julia behaves less scandalously than she does in the novel and Edmund is rather romantic.  The Bertrams of MP07 are somewhat less meddled with.  Sir Thomas is harsh with Fanny for her own good, as he sees it.  Aunt Bertram is less indolent and more aware of  her surroundings.  Tom is charmingly self-centered and the sisters are less prominent.  Maria Bertram gets so little screen time with Henry Crawford that someone unfamiliar with the novel might be surprised to learn of their affair.   Edmund is played to perfection by Blake Ritson.

Other characters:  Mrs. Norris, so pointlessly stingy and cruel in the novel, is reduced in both movies to something not much more than a bitter old lady.  The Grants, who are the reason the Crawfords are introduced to the Bertrams, don’t appear in either film.  Other incidental characters (Mr. Rushworth, John Yates, etc) are played to varying degrees of competence in both movies but since everything is so rushed they barely make an impression.  Mr.  Rushworth in MP99 is quite nicely done, however.  The Crawfords in MP99 are nearly perfect, both physically pleasing to look at and so totally narcissistic that other people are little more than toys to them.  Henry’s evolution from a charming cad to a heartbroken lover is if anything more pronounced in the movie than in the book.  Fanny even comes close to falling for him, which in the book wasn’t even hinted at.  The brother and sister are also quite a piece of work in MP07, although not to the same level.  In this movie, there is a slight whiff of incest between the two as if, although they are perfectly content to mess around in other peoples’ lives, where they really belong is with each other.

Mise en scene:  The MP99 Bertrams live in a strange, half ruined house almost entirely devoid of furniture or decoration.  When Fanny is sent off to Portsmouth as punishment for refusing Henry Crawford, she arrives at a dark hovel, crawling with bugs, with old food crusted on the table.  Neither of these abodes are anything like the ones described in Austen’s novel.  This dank hole is the site of an odd and hard to interpret moment in MP99 when Fanny’s mother, wed to a drunkard, covered in scabby children, and living in a filthy bug-infested house, encourages Fanny to accept Henry.  “After all, I married for love.”  WTF?

MP07 confines all its action to one location, leaving out the local parsonage, Sotherton, Portsmouth, and any other offsite location that anyone happens to visit.   It is a lovely place but the amount of time spent there is a bit claustrophobic and the contrast between Fanny’s life at the comfortable Mansfield and the hardscrabble home in Portsmouth is lost.

Everything else:  MP99 seems rather desperate to be about more than social satire.  This is the only reason I can see for the sex and slavery angles.   Slavery is rarely mentioned in the novel and I assume that contemporary readers would have understood that any landowner with “interests in Antigua” was somehow involved with slavery.  This is not to say that Austen was complacent about it.  The usually retiring Fanny challenges her uncle with a question about the slave trade which goes unanswered but this is nearly the only mention of the subject.  In MP99 it is front and center almost from the beginning of the movie and we are reminded constantly that all the niceties of Mansfield Park are paid for with slave labor.  Sir Thomas is portrayed as the cruel and depraved outcome of that system.  He even talks about bringing one of his female slaves home to serve at Mansfield Park, at least until Fanny reminds him that he would probably have to free the woman if he brought her to England.  The not-at-all veiled implication is that he wants to bring her to England so he can continue violating her in the comfort of his family’s home.

And then there’s the sex.   A “fallen woman” is not uncommon in Austen’s work (Lydia in P&P, Colonel Brandon’s cousin and her daughter in Sense and Sensibility, etc.), but the books are fairly discrete about the details.   Mansfield Park is somewhat unusual in the amount of misbehaving going on.  Maria runs away with Henry, Julia elopes with John Yates, the Crawfords are staying with the Grants because their father has brought his mistress under his roof.   MP99 kicks all this up a notch.   Sir Thomas is, to all appearances, a pedophile and a rapist.  Fanny finds a sketchbook full of Tom’s lurid drawings of his father’s escapades in Antigua, all of which are displayed to viewers.  There is a little lesbian action between Fanny and Mary Crawford which provokes Edmund to volunteer for the play so he can stroke Mary up as well.  And to cap it all off, Fanny (and viewers) get to see Henry Crawford naked in bed with Maria Rushworth.  Neither of them appear to be thinking of England.   This, my pets, is how you tart up a classic for a modern audience.

MP07 is thankfully devoid of any of this.   Sex and slavery both are handled as Austen would have handled them.  Edmund stays safely in character.  The Henry/Maria thing occurs via letters and innuendo as it does in the book.  Because of this, and despite its woefully inadequate budget and limited scope, it actually feels more like Mansfield Park without, of course, being anything like Mansfield Park at all.


So, there you have it.   Unfortunately I fear there is only enough merit between these two films to make one sort of good movie.  Neither of them alone is all that and both of them are Mansfield Park in name only.  Of the two I liked MP07 better, if only because Edmund is portrayed so well and because much less damage is done to other characters.  Even Fanny, despite her wholly modern look, acts more like the demure heroine of the novel.  Also, the lack of heavy-handed moralizing and gratuitous sex lend it a more Austen-esque vibe to me.    MP99 gave me the vapors way too often but not because I’m a prude.  Seriously, why make a movie about a book if you don’t like the book?

Score:  both Meh.



~ by gun street girl on August 19, 2014.

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