Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mansfield Park (1999)

1999, 112 min. PG-13 - adult situations, juvenile characters 
IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes plot summaries both have errors and spoilers. Mine just has spoilers. So go with mine below.  Also cross-posted to my Regency Rehash page over to the right. -------------------------------------------------------------------------->

I feel bad doing a rush review job that’s even late for Valentine’s Day, but my other big honkin’ romance review just isn’t ready. It’s not really a rush job, since, based on my draft document dates, I’ve been avoiding working on these 25 paragraphs for two years. Not a good sign. I paid Amazon $1.99 to watch this again and I’ve got change coming to me. THIS REVIEW HAS SPOILERS, but obviously the best kind in that they will spare you seeing the movie.

This version features good enough and generally attractive actors, some nice scenery, and rank stupidity. I guess Jane Austen needed to be taught a lesson - by a female writer/director Patricia Rozema - no less. The credits say this is from the book and Austen’s “early letters and journals”, which is presumably where the drawing of a slave giving a blow job to Sir Thomas comes from because I don’t remember that in the book, Mansfield Park. I think I probably would have.

For the rudiments of the plot I shall lift two paragraphs from my epic, nay, epochal, 15-clip review of the relatively decent 1983 version. Or you may just want to spare yourself the trouble and go read that one.

“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. One 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. The third sister married for love way below her station to a poor lieutenant of marines named Price. The Prices now live in relative 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. 
At some point Mrs. Norris and Lady Bertram prevail upon Lord Thomas to do something kind for their sister in taking her eldest daughter Fanny Price on as a ward, so to speak. Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park as a frightened and homesick self-possessed and obviously superior 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 with whom she shares Mansfield Park. 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. (except he won’t cuz this version is so fucked-up.)
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. Only her cousin Edmund treats her as a family member and friend.
It would be easy to dismiss complaints from Austen purists that this doesn’t follow the book by saying the book is unfilmable and we have to cut out all the intricately dull parts for the advancement of the story. Fine, I agree, this isn’t a book that demands careful preservation of every scene, but is it asking too much for at least some plot clarity or, say, character development? There is no effort to establish the characters or their flaws. You’re just supposed to know them because you’ve read the book. But then it strips characters of any rationale for their actions and so both reader and non-reader alike are left baffled by the character’s actions. And if Jane Austen is robbed of the crystalline clarity of her portrayal of human subjects and plotlines, why not just call it a day and move on to Danielle Steele?

The cumulative effect is like having the story described to you by a 12 year-old breathlessly describing the behavioral high points, but always missing the main point.

Now that Fanny is about 18, you know that she’s in love with her kindly cousin Edmund. There is nothing in the movie to tell us this, you’re just s’posed to know cuz you read the book, right? A laughably clumsy momentary insertion of slow motion horse riding clears things right up.

I have Adobe Premiere Elements, too. Maybe I should try that.

Later when Edmund loans the horse to a new romantic interest Fanny appears to be ambivalent about him but rather peeved about the horse.

Frances O'Connor is born to play any Austen heroine EXCEPT the halting, slightly wounded Fanny Price. The character’s power lies in her silent observational skills and her fundamental decency, as well as the dramatic tug of war between her desires and her duties as a grateful poor relation. As part of Rozema's re-imagining she is converted into a poor man's Elizabeth Bennet with a permanently arched eyebrow, unearned wisdom and juvenile snottiness. The moral center of the story has become a drama queen with a Cinderella complex.

It gets worse. Sir Thomas must go to Antigua to deal with some business failures and will take his irresponsible gambling and alcohol addicted elder son Tom with him. Austen’s Tom was a shit because he was a spoiled older brother who didn’t care about anyone but himself and couldn’t hold a candle to sober and responsible younger brother Edmund. Rozema’s Tom is a tortured artist who paints laughable self-portraits and is damaged by dark revelations of his father’s behavior.

And it is not enough that the two older men in Fanny’s life are either alcoholic layabouts or chilly autocrats as per Austen, they must in Rozema’s world have an unhealthy leering attraction to their biological relation and hold their hugs just a little too long. At last, the greatest authoress in the English language has achieved relevance through the cutting-edge grad school project that is this movie.

We are briefly rescued by the arrival of the dangerous Crawfords; brother Henry and sister Mary. We never learn anything useful about their past or why they are dangerous – they just are, okay? Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz are perfectly fine, but Mary Crawford is one of Austen’s most finely shaded characters - which is saying something - but here she’s all chopped to pieces and we don’t know why Edmund gets all moist over her.

The elegant Justine Waddell is wasted as younger sister Julia Bertram.

And then Fanny equates her position to that of Sir Thomas’s female slaves. Seriously? With a bonus horse ride in the rain. With more ham-fisted slow-mo.

Thuggish playwright Harold Pinter is the thuggish Sir Thomas. Man, this reeks.

The abrupt and pointless ballroom scene is the silliest montage since Team America - World Police. I’ve got a fever – and the only prescription is MORE SLOW MO!. I think they ran out of money for a choreographer so they just kinda twirled around for the close-ups.

I’m not sure if the urge to vomit is from the all the twirling or just on general principle alone.

The last vestige of Austen’s meticulous character development circles the drain with a sucking sound by way of Henry Crawford. The book and even the other wobbly film versions have him manipulate the Price’s poverty by stepping up and paying for Fanny’s beloved brother William’s commission as a lieutenant in the hierarchical cash-conscious Royal Navy. She is later horrified to discover it was all a ploy to set her up for a marriage proposal. But since this script has disappeared William like a South American dissident, Fanny rejects Henry without any of the disquieting guilt that her situation would otherwise require. Perhaps it was all to save valuable screen time but then we waste several minutes on another montage of Sir Thomas berating Fanny, complete with cross-fades, close-ups on his mouth, and echoey sound effects.

Fanny is sent back to her impoverished family in Portsmouth to jolt her into reality. There is an excruciating scene where Fanny is gifted fireworks and freed doves (slow mo!!) but finally there are a couple of non-Austen compliant but still very good scenes; the first with her mother advising her to consider creature comforts over true love – while her husband bellows for her attentions; and the other showing Henry Crawford fumbling his way to decency and elevated status in Fanny’s eyes. So she friend-zones him by making him share in her disappointment in cousin Edmund’s burgeoning romance. How modern. It’s also our first notion that she’s in love with anyone. It would be a surprise to anyone who hasn’t read the book.

You may remember that oldest cousin Tom drinks himself into a near death putrescence and Fanny is fetched back from Portsmouth by Edmund. And in the next scene Fanny suddenly turns into Moll Flanders whose, as Austen would have it, "lace has slipped".

Ah, the old falling asleep on the bosom chestnut. Not that I mind, but it points up another problem in this version in that Fanny is so attractive that Edmund would be a fool to drool down any other woman's bosom. A major conflict of the book is that Fanny is not a knock-out, but is an unerring judge of character based on years of silent, somewhat sorrowful observation.

But now we must come to the REAL reason cousin Tom is such a shit. While caring for him, Fanny stumbles across a book of his sketches filled with images of slavery, and Sir Thomas positioning a slaves head for oral pleasure. Ebert calls it a “witty, entertaining film.” About 5 minutes later Fanny catches Henry and her older cousin Maria naked in the sack and then she almost gets a wet one from Edmund.

Now it’s a race to the finish line as the family is scandalized by Maria running off with Henry Crawford, and Mary Crawford rather gauchely suggesting that Tom’s death might not be all bad if the inheritance were to come to Edmund, and Edmund, who somewhere along the line became a clergyman when we weren’t looking, gives her the boot and quickly falls in love with Fanny. The End.

It’s all in the book but here it’s done artlessly followed by a stupid epilogue.

Ebert also says, “anyone who thinks it is not faithful to Austen doesn't know the author but only her plots.” Actually the plot is ultimately faithful to Austen. Just shitty and slapdash in its presentation. Good thing I knew the plot.

My daughter warned me about this version. Shoulda listened. “Misery of the acutest kind.”

Jonny Lee Miller (Edmund) is now on American TV as Sherlock Holmes in “Elementary”.

A big dose of Austen’s mental antiseptic is called for:
“Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”


  1. Sometimes it's hard to appreciate a review of a movie you haven't seen, but the quality of your writing made this a very good read. Thanks

    1. Thanks. I prefer writing about good movies but sometimes bad ones are easier, although not for the reader perhaps.

  2. This review feels like a rush job. It's not that I think that Rozema's 1999 movie is flawless. Trust me, it has its flaws. It's just . . . I don't know. I get the feeling you were more concerned with being witty.

    1. Sorry, I've been gone a while. Thank you for reading. Takes me forever to write a paragraph, so I don't think I rushed it. And yes, I must always try to be witty, but this version really ticked me off. Mary Crawford is a sacred character to me because she is just so believable and semi-tragic, but here, what is she? In the way, almost.