The Complete Jane Austen "Mansfield Park" by Diane Danielson
Let's start off this review by stating for the record that I'm not a Jane Austen purist. I thoroughly enjoy creative film interpretations (Clueless, Metropolitan, Bridget Jones' Diary, Jane Austen Book Club, and even arguably, You've Got Mail), which should not be surprising considering I wrote a technology book with a Jane Austen theme. I also understand the difficulty of adapting the complexity of a JA novel into a condensed 90-minute version. Hence, the nomenclature: "adaption."
True to form, Mansfield Park (2007) is an "adaption" that had to leave out a lot of background and character development. Now, for Mansfield Park or Austen-neophites, this might be just fine, or it might have left them wondering a bit about why characters made certain decisions. I look at it just like the musical Les Miz. It always baffled me how they could cut out major character subplots, yet still come up with a phenomenal adaption clearly understood and enjoyed by purists and newbies alike. While Mansfield Park (2007) is no Les Miz (although it leads one to wonder why JA hasn't made it to Broadway yet), it's an entertaining film that left me smiling at the happy ending. Let's be honest, all I want from JA is wit, social satire and a happy ending. So, this one hit that mark, but clearly wasn't my favorite.
I won't waste time with a plot summary. See wikipedia's plot summary. But Mansfield Park has always been the most challenging or perhaps challenged novel from JA as noted in the following excerpt from the Metaphilm blog:
Then comes a great piece on the seriously misunderstood Mansfield Park: "In Whit Stillman's intriguingly Austenesque film, Metropolitan, Tom Townsend ...is astonished when Audrey Rouget ...reveals that she enjoys Mansfield Park. Everyone knows, Tom says, that Mansfield Park is the worst novel Jane Austen wrote, and nobody likes the book's heroine, Fanny Price. Audrey, the moral center of the film and very much a Fanny Price character herself, protests simply, 'I like Fanny Price.'"
I volunteered to review Mansfield Park, precisely because it was the JA novel I knew the least and as pointed out above, one of the least liked. I vaguely remember reading it in either college or high school. So, in some sense seeing it as a film this week, I had an open mind. But, what caught my attention most were the contrasts throughout, which at times could be distracting and disconcerting; yet at other times added an interesting layer of complexity, which I think is just as JA would have liked.
*Billie Piper, an unknown to me, but a clearly popular English actress known for her role on Dr. Who, plays Fanny Price. I kind of liked her, but found she reminded me too much of Scarlett Johansson. This was disconcerting, because I can't picture Scarlett playing virtuous. Then there was the matter of the dark bushy eyebrows and the loose flowing blond hair. It seemed too modern, especially considering she represented the most "old-fashioned" values.
*What happened to Mrs. Norris? While I quite understand having to cut out and cut back on some characters in an adaption, but Mrs. Norris was barely present. Clearly an Austen newbie would never make the connection to Argus' Filch's cat named Mrs. Norris in Harry Potter, as Mrs. Norris was just not that annoying (or amusing) in this film.
*Another challenging character for me was Mary Crawford, the money-chasing schemer. I actually liked her the best. Maybe having a few decades of life experience under my belt since I first read Mansfield Park, I've come to appreciate women unafraid to speak their mind and who, for better or worse, know what they want and have the gumption to go after it with no apologies. My guess is a Mary Crawford of today would be running a company and forgoing romance entirely.
*Optimism v. pessimism. We're first introduced to Mary and Henry Crawford as they discuss marriage. I've always been of the school of thought that marriage is as optimistic an endeavor as could ever exist. Yet, Mary and Henry made me laugh out loud right at the beginning as their take on marriage was that it leads to "deceit and disappointment." They are sadly correct on so many levels.
*Sir Thomas Bertram struck me as someone suffering from Narcissist Personality Disorder. He is a control freak, lacking in empathy, overly concerned with his own reputation and manipulative of others. He doesn't have any regard for Fanny until Henry shows an interest and she suddenly becomes useful to him. While I did appreciate his line about wayward daughter Maria: "I thought my daughter would be good, not just good-mannered," I found it amusing in that I'm not sure Maria was either. Moreover, like him, there is a question as to whether he is "good" (the family fortune was made on the backs of slaves), or even "good-mannered" (he's quick to toss insults around).
*As for Maria, who ends up deserting her husband for Henry, she comes off as a Borderline Personality craving the constant attention and immediate gratification of shopping, parties, and affairs. She clearly has no empathy for how her actions affect others. In fact, she and Henry quite deserve all the unhappiness they will likely bring to each other.
*I suppose I also found Fanny a bit hypocritical this time around in that she can't believe Henry could turn off his ardor for Maria and suddenly fall in love with her. Yet, she fully believes Edmund can abruptly stop loving Mary and do the same. Of course she was correct in her gamble on love.
But, isn't that what we like most about JA? When good finally triumphs over evil? When optimism wins out over pessimism? Because at the end of the film, it's why we can't help but smile as Fanny says to Edmund at their wedding: "Is it possible to be this happy?" And, Edmund replies: "Yes. Let's make it our business, Mrs. Bertram, to be happy ever after."
Maybe Mansfield Park isn't quite so popular because of the juxtapositions and the character flaws of just about everyone in the story. And, this film adaption underscores that with its uneveness. But, perhaps that's what makes it the most human story of them all.