Sunday, July 8, 2012

Jane Austen's Mansfield Park (1983) - reconsidered

1983. At least 308 min with rounding errors. Not Rated. Some intimation that distant relatives may have had sex once or twice. It's unclear.
IMDB says... Impoverished Fanny Price is sent to live with her more affluent uncle and aunt. The arrival of new neighbors brings a chance for romance to Fanny and her cousins.

The 73rd Virgin says... Austen, we have a problem. A 5-hour 8-minute problem.
Our Continuous Quality Improvement Team here at Movies Eat the Soul has been after me for a while to re-review this. I don’t remember being on drugs when I wrote my original review, but re-watching (parts) of this, and noting the parts I skipped, makes me think I may have over-rated it just a tad. This will be cross-posted to Regency Rehash over to your right, so I know the traffic over there is fixin' to go through the roof.

Let’s begin by allowing two not very good young actors from Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” to describe the problem.

Gillian Anderson, while hosting BBC’s Masterpiece Classic, for a much later version, also sets up the problem. In so many words, the heroine is a drip.  The hero is too.  But Ms. Crawford, the anti-heroine, is a babe, and in most ways sympathetic. She just has one tiny character flaw.

This is apparently a booger of a book to put on screen. It was certainly a booger to read. Six solid chapters, right in the middle like a lump of potato that won’t go down the disposal, are devoted to the endless details of a household play that will never actually be put on. Many's the commute with this book-on-CD droning away that I thought, “I've either gotta move farther from work or figure out how to play this at 1.5x speed.”  Or, “maybe I’ll listen tomorrow – where’s the Dinosaur Jr. CD?”

And for the faux-sensitive young jock trying to ensnare English Lit or Womyns’ Studies majors, here be monsters. Such slow moving monsters.

There will be SPOILERS in this review. If you don’t already know how Austen books end, you probably stopped reading back at “booger”.

The story: There were once three sisters. One was a great beauty and married Sir Thomas Bertram and then settled in for 30 years of heir-bearing and a slow downward spiral of poor understanding, absence of curiosity and pampering at the great country estate of Mansfield Park. She is known as Lady Bertram. Here she is played by Angela Pleasence (Donald’s daughter) in kind of a one-note Regency space cadet cadence. I never formed a clear impression of this character in the book either.  The 1999 movie version just gives up and makes her an opium addict.

One sister married a parson at Mansfield Park named Mr. Norris. They had no children and then Mr. Norris died leaving Mrs. Norris without much money and an obsession for hanging on to what she has. She ingratiates herself to her brother-in-law Sir Thomas, attends to Lady Bertram, and inserts herself into the rearing of their 4 children including 2 spoiled daughters. She’s as toxic as a “cookie full of arsenic”.

The third sister married for love way below her station to a poor lieutenant of marines named Price. The Prices now live in squalor in the port city of Portsmouth with a generally uncounted number of children, a dissolute servant, dirty dishes and Mr. Price’s alcoholism and gout.

As the book and movie begin Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram prevail upon Lord Thomas to do something kind for their “poor sister” by taking in her eldest daughter Fanny Price as a ward, so to speak. Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park as a frightened and homesick child, with unfinished manners. It is made clear within her first few hours that she will be treated with forbearance, but she will never be valued as highly as her cousins. She is primarily there as a companion for Lady Bertram. Not a servant, but far from an equal. She leaves behind parents she doesn’t care much about but also a beloved brother, William, who will show up later.

You may notice some of the problems from the first clips. That classy early 80s BBC sound for starters. Voices echo, feet clomp across wood floors. And, God bless ‘em, BBC insists on filming carriage scenes with hand-held cameras on real gravel roads with real horses. The bouncing and noise mix in this clip almost become sublime. I kind of admire it but it gets distracting and affects our ability to watch the actors act.

Fanny's eldest cousin Tom, the heir to Mansfield Park, pays little attention to her; her two female cousins Maria (pronounced like Mariah Carey) and Julia are amused at her rough manners and apparent ignorance; her Aunt Norris unleashes esteem-destroying verbal digs on a daily basis and Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram are pretty much unconcerned. Only her cousin Edmund treats her as a family member and friend.

You are now 19 minutes into this monster. Fast forward to somewhere near Fanny’s 18th birthday: Sylvestra LeTouzel (her real name) is now Fanny. She is a good deal prettier than the cover art would indicate, although it's clear she's never had any nose work done. Fanny is not overly attractive, is halting, and rather grave, doesn’t speak much in company and sees all with a mix of charity, judgmentalism and a certain wisdom. She loves Edmund (Nicholas Farrell) in a romantic way. He loves her in a sisterly way. This chopped scene is actually FOUR minutes long and is devoted to one purpose, that is, determining that Fanny has not had her exercise and that Fanny does – indeed - need a horse. This is the approximate pacing for most of the show.

The whole cousin-love thing can be a little creepy to the modern reader/viewer, but I guess it wasn’t uncommon at the time. Not worth worrying about. You’ll have a hard time imagining these two bumpin’ uglies anyway.

So Tom will be the respectable heir, the two daughters will make good marriages, and younger brother Edmund will not receive much of a fortune and so must make his own way. His chosen profession is the clergy and he is scheduled to “take orders” shortly. That’s the plan.

The story gets rolling when it appears that Sir Thomas needs to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to see to some business affairs in Antigua. I have no idea if Jane Austen had any interest in the slavery issue. She would have been alive and writing during Britain’s withdrawal from and illegalization of the slave trade. The 1999 version will make a big deal of all this. The book does not.

Young Tom will also go to Antigua in order to learn the business and to get him away from his layabout London friends and especially to get him away from the horse track where his gambling debts have already forced his father to sell the “church position” (parson’s job) that Edmund should have had, which means Edmund will have to go a-clergying elsewhere.

Here’s where Austen shines, in my opinion. None of the remaining children, or even Fanny, is particularly saddened by Sir Thomas’s absence. He’s not a monster. He’s not particularly over-bearing. He’s doesn’t not love them. He’s just no fun and he hasn’t bothered to get close to any of them and he’s allowed them to become spoiled and full of themselves under Mrs. Norris’s care. This is delicate, finely wrought plot material, and, as I remember the book, presented without much of Austen’s normal dry wit. It’s kinda sad and believable.

The eldest Bertram sister Maria “forms an attachment” with Mr. Rushworth, a wealthy neighbor of her approximate age who is fat, dim, dull, and foolish, with an overbearing mother, and 12,000 pounds per year coming to him. The wedding will wait until Sir Thomas’s return.

Into this bucolic setting come the Crawfords, Mary, about 20, and her slightly older brother Henry, to stay with their half-sister Mrs. Grant and her Dr. Grant, near Mansfield Park. Their uncle, Admiral Crawford, has taken a mistress back in London and allowed her to move into his household along with Mary, so Mary must be removed in order to avoid having her name sullied by this scandalous affair.

The Crawford siblings are part of the smart set back in London and they tend to view these country gentry as grist for their slightly smart-assed worldly mill. They are perfectly aware that their uncle has set a poor example of marriage but in their circles, as long as Mary doesn’t live under the same roof, it’s not that big of a deal.

The Crawford’s become frequent visitors at Mansfield Park and ingratiate themselves with the locals. Henry is a bit of rake and it is intimated that he may have a couple notches in his bed post. He represents no physical threat to the Bertram sisters’, um, “intactness” shall we say, but he is a relentless flirt and sets about winning the hearts of Julia and the betrothed Maria and creating an unpleasant competition between them. Robert Burbage is waaaay too feminine in the role.

Mary is described as small and dark with very pretty dark eyes. Did I mention dark? Jackie Smith-Wood as Mary is okay I guess, but a little old, and the wig is unfortunate. She’s really not young and hot enough to drive home the point.

The 2007 version doesn't have much going for it but it does have Hayley Atwell as Mary.

Anyway, she becomes sincerely intrigued with and attracted to younger brother Edmund, but admits a life-time fondness for eldest brothers because they tend to become wealthy heirs. Edmund and Fanny, the Drip Twins, are individually horrified by Miss Crawford’s frank and dismissive views on the quiet country life, but Edmund is also quickly in her thrall. He excuses her off-color pun about “admirals, vices and rears”. Clergyman or not, she’s hot. While touring the Rushworth’s chapel she discloses a frank dislike of religious services and the clergy. Whoops.

She begins to vivaciously and charmingly nag Edmund about taking a more prestigious career path, say, the law, or the military for instance, in order to distinguish himself and, of course, generate a little more bank. Fanny watches all this with a resigned disappointment.

I don’t know how far Austen was into symbols, but this scene lifted directly from the book features Henry Crawford and Maria waiting for Mr. Rushworth to find the key to a gate into a garden. Henry goes all serpent-y in tempting Maria to enter the garden with him and leave poor Rushworth behind. Fanny warns Maria in horror “you will tear your dress” as they head off to the “grove of oak”. Oh dear. Samantha Bond as Maria is good.

Young Tom returns from Antigua early before Sir Thomas, stops in London to collect his ne’er do well friend Mr. Yates, and they both return to Mansfield Park. Here they set in motion a plan to stage the racy stage play “Lovers Vows” using the absent Sir Thomas’s study as a stage.

And here is where the book’s plot, already stately, turns to molasses in January.

The play is filled with innuendo and it is clearly inappropriate that the yet-to-be-wed Maria should be allowed to act in such a shameful thing. The Drip Twins disapprove of course, but are overruled. Eventually, Miss Crawford prevails upon Edmund to participate in the play by way of playing a character who will “make love” (that is, maybe hold hands and talk intimately) with her character. Here Fanny assists the ridiculous Mr. Rushworth with his rehearsals, but is especially disturbed when she discovers Maria and Mr. Crawford rehearsing, ahem - intimately, without her betrothed’s knowledge.

The preceding paragraph describes EVERYTHING important that happens in Chapters 13-18. So be damn thankful that this BBC version only spends 36 minutes on it.

But Sir Thomas returns before the play can be presented and in a few fine scenes we see to what extent his children are terrified of him, and how good Fanny’s judgment has been throughout the episode. Bernard Hepton as Sir Thomas is great. Without raising his voice or making a direct statement he whips all of them into line. For the first time he begins to appreciate the quiet and sensible Fanny and realize that he has an obsequious monster in the house in the form of Mrs. Norris.

Maria has discovered that Henry Crawford is a flirt and a cad so she rapidly marries Rushworth, setting the stage for all the third act drama and trauma. Since Henry Crawford is now bored by the absence of Maria and Julia, he determines to make a meaningless play for Fanny and “put a little hole in her heart”. Mary nails his narcissistic character flaw exactly but celebrates it rather than trying to correct it. Whatever her concerns for Fanny, she can't resist the fun.

Due to Fanny’s improved standing in the family, Sir Thomas determines to have a ball in her honor. Her steadfast qualities are shown here when Edmund is moping around with a crush on Ms. Crawford.

In the meantime Fanny’s beloved brother William has come to visit. He is a penniless midshipman with little prospect for purchasing his commission as an officer. I’m hazy on how all this works but suffice it to say you need money and friends. He has none of one and precious little of the other.
Henry makes a blundering play for Fanny, first by introducing William to his uncle, the Admiral, and then by purchasing William’s commission for him. A huge deal. Fanny is almost tearful in her thanks but is then horrified to discover that this was all done to soften her up for a marriage proposal.

Sir Thomas is baffled and disappointed but not brutally unkind as some later versions would have him. Since we finally get the two best actors together for several minutes (chopped by your host), this is one of the better bits. Hepton is all quiet authority but LeTouzel calls to mind a silent movie star with her big eyes and bee-sting mouth, hunched back and acting with her hands, and utterly strange mannerisms. I know I should be put off by it but somehow she takes it so far as to be strangely affecting. The screaming and gasping at the end is kind of believable given the pressures she feels to be a grateful and dutiful poor relation.

Maybe I like her subconsciously because she reminds me of my old grade school nuns. Like in this clip. And Ms. Crawford provides a rather sunny take on how to be unhappy all your life.

And so ends Episode Four. Two more to go - and now it finally gets pretty engaging. The sets in Portsmouth are rather good, considering there must have been a tight budget, and they are effective in showing the crowding and lack of comfort that will soon be part of Fanny's life.

It is decided that Fanny will be sent to see her biologicals wallowing in Portsmouth. Sir Thomas hopes that this dash of cold water in the face will bring her to her senses and convince her to marry Henry Crawford. This is a superior aspect of this version. It takes the time to show all the dissolute living that Fanny has escaped, but it also shows when Henry comes to visit that he is at least making a sincere if fitful attempt at being a better person. And even better – almost straight from the book – Fanny’s father actually tries very hard to regain a bit of his dignity in recognizing Henry as his son’s benefactor and as a possible suitor for Fanny. I find it very touching.

Before Henry leaves Portsmouth we get to the nut of the issue; Fanny listens to her conscience and almost no one else does. He actually seeks her help with his own conscience but what can she say? He leaves with a glimmer of approval and appreciation from Fanny and the chance of solidifying his elevated status in her eyes.

Young Tom picks this time to party too hard in London, comes down with a fever, and has to be retrieved at the brink of death and brought back to Mansfield Park to live or die. Mary Crawford writes to Fanny and in so many words notes how superior and just it would be if the inheritance were to fall to Edmund should the unthinkable happen to Tom.

And Henry, against his own better judgment – a key point for Henry and Mary Crawford throughout the book – goes to fashionable London, meets up with the Rushworths in society and, through pride alone, begins an affair or elopement with Maria. Now they’re playing for keeps. Mr. Rushworth very publicly seeks divorce; all of London is scandalized; the Bertrams are permanently stained; Edmund, having already taken orders as a parson and still besotted with Mary, can no longer pursue her.  Oh, and Julia elopes with Mr. Yates.

By now it is obvious to Sir Thomas that Fanny is the only female upon whom he can depend.  Finally, Lady Bertram rallies enough to write to Fanny and beg her to come back. Edmund fetches her.

Edmund flashbacks with Fanny to his final meeting with Ms. Crawford. It didn't go well. Mary Crawford is one of Austen’s best and most modern and most believable characters. Austen doesn’t do tragedy, but Mary Crawford is almost tragic. She is just this close to being a lovely person, but she can’t help herself in her acquisitiveness, and she hasn't quite the concern for others' feeling to help her keep her mouth shut. Boy, have I known people like her.

All ends pretty much happily; everyone gets their just desserts. Eventually "At exactly the time it should be so, and not a week sooner," per Austen, Edmund realizes his folly and notices the cousin he should have been in love with all along. This version shortens it quite a bit (imagine that), but it is intriguingly staged regardless of the distracting color bleed on the videotape. A Catholic might look at Fanny’s posture in this scene and see a priest hearing confession. Or maybe just a very dignified lady with a bar graph of expected wallowing and suffering in her mental spreadsheet. When Edmund has wallowed and suffered up to the appropriate line, he will be accepted.

What can I say? To me, the book was not that enjoyable. The great Walter Russell Mead posted today describing Austen as "a Mozart among English novelists if one thinks about the dazzling perfection and brilliant invention of her prose, or perhaps a Vermeer if one considers the intense observation and painstaking description of her portrayals" and I generally agree, but this book is just so alien.

But, if you have a sturdy enough constitution to enjoy the book, you will probably think very highly of this version. It is thorough, stately, fairly well-acted and fairly well-staged. The last two hours almost rescue it. I would like to say there is a better version, but there isn't. The 2007 BBC version has very attractive actors but is cheap and shoddy. The 1999 movie is bad in so many ways.

Nicholas Farrell is still something of a star. Samantha Bond became a second or third generation Miss Moneypenny in several Bond movies and was something of a sex symbol in her time. She is on BBCs ratings hit soap opera Downton Abbey these days.

Le Touzel stays busy on BBC and had a small part in "The Iron Lady" and other Brit-Hollywood fare. IMDB and Wikipedia both say she is most fondly known in England for this Heineken commercial which is a funny reverse take on My Fair Lady/Pygmalion.

No comments:

Post a Comment