Mansfield Park (Miramax Film 1999): Directed by Patricia Rozema; Starring Frances O’Conner, James Purevoy, etc.
Mansfield Park begins with Fanny Price leaving her family to live with her rich relatives. In spite of being brought up in a rich household, she is not considered equal to the rest of the family. Fanny grows up with her cousins Tom (the rebellious older cousin), Edmund (the kind, brother like figure who needs Fanny to put words to his feelings), and Maria and Julia (the two sisters who are frivolous and desiring of attention, Maria more so than Julia). Fanny is thrust into situations where she has to make a decision between her sense and her sensibility, from an offer of marriage by Mr. Henry Crawford (which she refuses due to the fact that she does not trust him for she sees his true character) to being sent away from Mansfield Park (because she refuses Mr. Crawford) to bashing heads with Miss Crawford (due to a family scandal). Mansfield Park also explores the idea of whether or not two friends can be together. According to this film, it can happen for Fanny and Edmund do get married at the end. Interestingly enough, the plot itself didn’t come off like a Jane Austen story, but the characters do seem to be true to the Austen character types from her novels.
I must confess that there are times when these characters do things that are not totally congruent with something Austen would do. However, this is due to the plot of the story, not with how the characters actually act. This is where the film becomes unsuccessful in capturing the essence of Austen. Mansfield Park does seem to focus mainly on the romance, rather than class differences or women’s education, even though it does offer some interpretations on this. One element in this film that really separates itself from an Austen work is the films knack of wanting to tell an Austen story and deal with racism in England. As I said earlier, I have never read Mansfield Park, but as a developing Austen fan, this racism element feels like a slap in the face. At one point Fanny finds sketches of people being raped, beaten, and Sir Thomas being pedophile. This was a most unsuccessful, and disappointing, element and almost ruins the Austen film experience.
In spite of all this, the film does offer some interesting readings of women’s education, and class relations. For example, at the beginning of the film she overhears Sir Tomas telling his daughters that she is not their equal, but she must never know it. This shows that the family will do the proper thing, the socially acceptable thing, and act like Fanny is their equal, which doesn’t really happen, but they will never believe this to be true. Another thought-provoking interpretation was on women’s education, which really fit the Austen mold. The film shows that in spite of a formal education, women who are raised in wealth really are not educated in the modern sense of the word. Fanny who has no money following her, increases her intellect because that’s all she has, but the other two female cousins are very frivolous and selfish. Notice that towards the end of the movie Maria and Mr. Crawford have an affair and the Sir Thomas complains that in spite of all that education she received she still did this. This tells us that even though Maria received a formal education, she was never taught to think and reason for herself. This idea seems to be very consistent with some of the other Austen works, such as Pride and Prejudice (Elizabeth almost has to increase her intellect and Miss Bingley really doesn’t because she has money) and Emma (Emma doesn’t reach for her full potential because she doesn’t have to, whereas Jane Fairfax does reach for education because she doesn’t have money).
Mansfield Park does have some great qualities, mainly the characters, but at the same time the unsuccessful traits of this film does overshadow what can be deemed as successful, in my opinion. Even though the film does capture the essence of an Austen character, this does not make up for the racism element, the lack of satirical elements, and the heavily romantic plot it tries to bring to the table.