My Year with Jane Austen: “Mansfield Park” [1999]

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Movie: “Mansfield Park”

Release Year: 1999

Actors: Fanny – Frances O’Connor

Edmund – Jonny Lee Miller

Mary Crawford – Embeth Davidtz

Henry Crawford – Alessandro Nivola

Comparison – “Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.”

This is probably the most interesting Jane Austen adaptation we’ve seen so far in this review series. For the most part (other than the modern re-imaginings, of course), the other movies have stuck pretty closely to their book counterparts. There are small changes here and there, extra lines added/removed, and various actors bringing their own flare to the characters, to varying levels of success. But while this movie does keep the main plot points included, it also makes some significant character changes and also heavily focuses on themes only briefly touched upon in the book, most notably, the role of the slave trade on British life during this time period.

I’ll dive more deeply into the character changes later, but both Fanny and Sir Thomas have some striking dissimilarities to their book versions. But the other big change is the focus on slavery and the growing abolitionist movement at the time. Right in the beginning of the movie as Fanny travels to Mansfield, she sees a slave ship docked on the coastline and is struck by it. Later, as an adult, she and Edmund discuss the abolitionist movement, with Edmund noting that while progress in that area is a moral good, their livelihoods are currently funded by the wealth provided by the Bertram family’s plantations in Antigua. For his part, Sir Thomas espouses some very racist and incorrect points of view at a family gathering, starting off a minor family scuffle when Edmund and Fanny attempt to correct him. And, of course, we later see the horrific actions that Sir Thomas has taken against his slaves depicted in Tom’s artwork. I’ll get more into Sir Thomas and these violent acts later, but I have a similar problem with that depiction as I do with some of this theme.

Mainly, the movie seems to be wanting to have it both ways: it wants to bring up this topic as one that would be relevant to the times and add a more meaningful weight to Edmund and Fanny’s discussion (the book largely focuses on nature and religion here), but the movie also doesn’t want to change anything significant about the story in this light. Meaning, there’s all of this discussion about the slave trade, but no characters actually make any meaningful steps or really change anything about their lives in response to this. This is likely realistic, it’s not like many nobles of the time were probably giving up their fortune in the work of moving towards freedom from the African people enslaved. But it also makes the movie end on a very awkward, unresolved note. It’s rather uncomfortable. Perhaps that was the point? But if so, even that fails to really settle with any weight.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

I have mixed feelings on this portrayal of Fanny Price. On one hand, I really like Frances O’Connor’s acting overall and think she fits the mental image I had of Fanny pretty perfectly. On the other hand, I think the character is really all over the place throughout the movie, sometimes being presented as a strong-willed, verging on rebellious young woman, and at others reverting back to the more meek and mild version of the character that we’re familiar with from the book.

One of the big challenges of adapting this book is Fanny herself. She’s an even more quiet and reserved character than Eleanor who also has Marianne to balance her out. So, I get that adjustments had to be made here. Edmund’s “grooming” of Fanny definitely doesn’t work for modern audiences. Nor does the fact that most of Fanny’s longer speeches (that she makes out loud at least) have to do with the wonders of nature, poetry, and the clergy. As I’ve mentioned in my review of the books, there are even times when Fanny seems to be suffering from some mild form of Stockholm Syndrome, especially with how thankful she is for Mrs. Norris’s constant reminders of how very, very lucky Fanny is to be in a family where she is largely ignored and otherwise put to work as a glorified maid service for the ladies of the house.

So, all of that acknowledged, I generally am ok with the changes they’ve made to Fanny here, especially when they emphasize her more wild moments (running around with Edmund, horse back riding, being more firm when she stands up to Sir Thomas about refusing Mr. Crawford). There is a bit of whiplash when she switches back to being meek/mild all of a sudden, but I get it.

The only real problem I have with her portrayal is the decision the movie makes to have her briefly accept Henry Crawford. Again, on one hand, I get the point the movie is trying to make about the very real, very scary situation facing women of the time. We see Fanny witness the life her mother has had after marrying the wrong man, essentially. She married for love, but it is clear that that love is gone and all that remains is a life marred with poverty and too many children. This could easily be Fanny’s future, and I like that they acknowledge these hard choices, especially in a Jane Austen film that, naturally, usually tells the much more romantic, lovely version of young women finding love and wealth (or at least good comfort) together.

I also think that this change can add a good balance point between Edmund and Fanny, which I’ll talk more about later. But strictly looking at it as a character adaptation from what we’re given in the book, this is the biggest change to Fanny’s character we see and one that undermines one of the most prevalent aspects of her entire character. Through the book, Fanny is largely a silent observer. But through access to her inner thoughts and the more revealing conersations we see between her and Edmund, it becomes very clear that Fanny is the only character who is truly clear-eyed about the people and events going on around her. She also is the only one to hold true to the principles she expresses. Edmund talks a good game, but he ultimately joins in the play (after very little prompting really) and is willfully blind to Mary Crawford’s true character. Most of the rest don’t even come close to his levels. By the end of the book, Austen devotes a decent amount of time to Sir Thomas reflecting on the failures of parenting that lead to his children being raised to look the part of well-bred individuals but who ultimately lacked the firm foundation that is required beneath it all to be truly moral or proper.

Fanny, alone, stands true to her beliefs. Even in Portsmouth where we see her struggling to get by in her family’s household (her health actually suffers), Fanny’s focus shifts to what she can bring to this family and she devotes much of her time to improving Susan. When Crawford visits, she sees his improvements as nothing more than a hopeful sign that he will soon recognize the pain he causes her by continuing to pursue her. She knows she doesn’t love him. Knows that a future with a character such as he is (one who she has witnessed toying with women) is questionable at best. If anything, for the book character at least, seeing the situation her mother is in also reinforces the idea that marrying the wrong man can have dire consequences, making Henry Crawford’s fortune not necessarily the assurance of comfort that it originally seems, from a purely practical sense.

The story is almost built around this essential trait of Fanny’s, and one that is presented as unique and rare to her, so to give that up in the movie is strange to say the least. And, given that she changes her mind the very next day, adding weight to Crawford’s accusations of her own inconstancy and lack of trustworthiness, I’m not quite sure what it really adds to the movie. Does it really give us any greater insights into Fanny herself? Into the situation women faced? All of that could have still been accomplished without undermining the steadiness that Fanny is later praised for. Edmund even calls it her “infallible guide”…but the movie itself just worked against such strong language or terms. I think I just wish the movie had done more with this moment. If they were really going to play around with such a key part of Fanny’s character (perhaps the key part of her character), I feel like more needed to be done to justify the change, either leading up to her making this decision or in the fallout. As it is, it feels unnecessary and both undermines Fanny herself and lends some extra motivation for Henry Crawford’s rash actions later on (though not much, and I’ll touch on that in the Villains section).

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

Edmund is so much more likable in this movie than he is in the book. My love for Jonny Lee Miller has been well-established at this point, so of course, I credit his natural charisma as helping bring the character more forward as a hero. But we also simply see more heroic deeds from him. Or, at the very least, more romantic hero deeds from him. Unlike in the book, this version presents Edmund as half-aware of his interest in Fanny the entire time. The audience is never left to question whether Edmund has feelings for Fanny, it’s there from the beginning. It’s there when he mistakes his father’s praising of his choice in women, thinking of Mary Crawford, for Fanny herself. It’s there when, after Mary Crawford disheartens him about her views on the clergy, he demands the first two dances with Fanny instead of Mary. It’s there when we watch Edmund and Henry Crawford gaze after Fanny as she leaves the ball, clearly paralleling them both as interested parties. It’s there in strained words of missing her when he fetches her back home and then when we falls asleep on her shoulder. And it’s most especially there when he initiates their almost kiss in the middle of their middle-of-the-night encounter in Tom’s room (this, still, before Edmund had even heard Mary Crawford finally truly expose herself).

Miller’s version strikes a good balance between Edmund’s own moral sense while also making him believably young and naive enough to fall for a woman like Miss Crawford. His take on the character is very fresh-faced and wide-eyed. So while we see him giving good speeches on the quality of literature and concerns about the slave trade, it’s also easy enough to see him swayed over to being in a tawdry play and pursue Mary past the point of reason. In the end, it’s much easier to forgive him his nonsense for all the more good we’re given to continue liking him throughout this version.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

For a book that is already largely made up of villains, somehow the movie went and made more?? I’ll get into the Crawfords, of course, but one of the most major changes to this adaptation of the book is the striking character revision of Sir Thomas. In the book, he could be gruff at times, but was largely a benevolent character, often coming in second to Edmund as actually caring about Fanny’s needs. We see him arrange the ball for her largely out of genuine care for her and her brother. And even after she refuses Mr. Crawford and he speaks harshly to her, he follows this up directly with the action of making sure there is a fire in her room. From there, he does nothing but quietly discuss the situation with Edmund and resolve to let things play out as they will. The worst that can be said about him is that he becomes a bit neglectful when caught up in the family drama at the end, leaving Fanny to linger in Portsmouth.

Here, not the case. It’s actually a very uncomfortable change, overall. I’m not necessarily opposed to re-writing the character this way, but I’m not sure what purpose it ultimately served with how it’s done here. We don’t really need a reason to dislike this character as, like I’ve said, there are plenty of unlikable characters in this story. And even if they had left the character completely as is in this movie, harsher threats to Fanny and colder/creepier disposition overall, he would have been plenty unlikable. But then they add in the graphic nature of his treatment of the slaves at the plantation. The images Tom draws depict every sort of violence, up to and including sexual violence. And then…the movie never touches the topic again.

We’re left with a family who essentially goes on as is, with Fanny and Edmund interacting with everyone in the same manner as always, even going so far as to bring Fanny’s younger sister, Susan, into the household. In the book, this makes sense. With this type of character portrayal for Sir Thomas? There are some serious eyebrow raises about introducing a young woman into that situation, ones that you have to think the very moral and upright Fanny and Edmund (one has to assume she would tell him about this) would have serious concerns about. And then, beyond that, the movie fails completely to make any actual statement or rebuke of this character. It just…sits there. If you’re going to touch on this very real part of history, you have to actually do something with it. As it is, it’s almost worse than not acknowledging these harsh realities at all, since the movie introduces the topic but then does so little with it that it begins to feel exploitative and used for graphic thrills rather than adding any meaningful commentary. I have a big problem with it, ultimately.

For their part, the Crawford siblings are pretty similar to what we see in the book. I do like that we actually get to see the scene where Mary Crawford so thoroughly exposes herself as a terrible person. In the book, it’s kind of anticlimatic to just hear about it second hand through Edmund’s recounting to Fanny.

As for Henry Crawford, the casting here was perfect as I think he immediately sets of spidey-senses for most women as not a trustworthy guy. Too charming by half! His arc is influenced a bit, I think, by the changes they make to Fanny’s decision to briefly accept him only to promptly drop him again the very next day. Not that this disappointment in any ways justifies his or Maria’s actions. But it does paint the entire thing in a bit of a different light, since he’s clearly still reeling from this quick about-face. It also does add weight to his comment that Fanny is somehow the perfect example of trustworthiness. He’s right! She’s not, really, after this! It’s a very human thing she does, but he also has a point. In the book, there is really nothing pushing him towards Maria other than sheer boredom and ego. Here he does have a recently broken heart to somewhat explain his poor decision making. As far as his character arc goes, I’m fine with either option. I have more problems with what it does to Fanny’s character than his, really.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

As I discussed in the “Heroes” section, the romance is greatly increased in this version of “Mansfield Park.” The entire movie gives us ample evidence that Fanny’s love is requited but that Edmund is just too much of a dunderhead to really put it all together. Really, there’s almost more on the screen highlighting Edmund’s love of Fanny than the other way around. We know it to be true since Fanny pretty much confesses as much, but he has many more actions and lingering looks to his side of things (probably a testament to the director/writers knowing who the main audience will likely be composed of…).

In some ways, Edmund and Fanny are more balanced together in this version as well. I know it’s been some fan’s complaints that it seems that Fanny is essentially Edmund’s reward at the end of the book for getting through the trials that were Mary Crawford. In my review of the book, I argued that it is the opposite: that Edmund is Fanny’s reward for staying true to her principles in the face of everything. Here, we see them both stumble. Edmund, of course, still pursues Mary Crawford (though the near kiss with Fanny does introduce a question into whether he’d have gone through with that relationship even if Mary hadn’t sabotaged herself). He still even has the line about not being able to picture anyone as his wife but for Mary (harder to buy that line in a movie like this that only shortly before had him confusing his father’s compliments on his choice of a potential bride for Fanny instead of Mary…tell me again how he couldn’t picture anyone else as a bride??) But here, we also see Fanny stumble, briefly giving into fear of a poor future to accept Henry Crawford, if only for one night. I talked more about that in the Heroines section, but I think the decision itself plays best when viewed through the romance angle, as one that makes equals, equally flawed at least, out of our main couple.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

The movie definitely adds in more comedy to the proceedings, making it, in some ways, feel more like a Jane Austen story that the original book did itself. There’s a great little montage right after the family party meets the Crawfords where we go through each individual primping and prepping themselves, all clearly besotted in one way or another with the two new comers. Some of Mrs. Norris’s nastiness is hedged a bit more for laughs, though she’s still generally just an awful person. And Fanny and Edmund’s interactions are often tinged with a lighter note as well than they were in the books. Wisely, the director and writers steered well-clear of giving too many impressions of Edmund’s “molding” Fanny as she grew, something that is often referenced in the book but that means something very different to modern audiences than it would have at the time.

Mr. Rushworth is definitely the primary humorous character. He’s great from start to finish. He doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but the actor really makes the most of even the brief appearances we do see. He bumbles about, seemingly only half aware of his surroundings at any given moment, clearly ignorant of his fiance’s contempt. His bragging about his number of speeches and costume changes to the baffled Sir Thomas (this, on their first meeting!) is pure gold. And, of course, we get to actually see the morning where Maria and Crawford are discovered to be missing. In some ways, seeing the reality of the situation settle on poor Mr. Rushworth does more to really highlight the wrongness of the situation than what we got in the book. Silly he may be, but here we get to actually see the human cost of two selfish individuals and their thoughtless actions.

And, of course, the movie kept in my favorite comedic moment from the book: when Lady Bertram is clearly sleeping through all of the action and startles awake only to quickly protest that she was not, in fact sleeping.

Fun facts – “Life seems but a quick succession of busy nothings.”

Not only does Jonny Lee Miller play two Jane Austen heroes (something that I believe he is unique to?), he also had already played a character in a “Mansfield Park” adaptation before being cast as Edmund here. He played one of Fanny’s younger brothers in the 1983 mini-series version of the story.

This Fanny Price is partially modeled after Jane Austen herself, with Fanny working as an aspiring author. Some of the bits of writing she reads in the movie come from Austen’s own early work as a teenager.

The actresses who play young Fanny and young Susan are sisters in real life.

Best Movie Gif/Meme: “I dearly love a laugh.”

Thought this one was pretty good:

In two weeks, I’ll the 2007 version of “Mansfield Park.”

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