Showing posts with label Mansfield Park. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mansfield Park. Show all posts

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Matter of Mansfield (Jillian)

Fanny Price 2007 - Billie Piper
Fanny Price 1999 - Frances O'Connor
Fanny Price (and Edmund) 1986 - Sylvestra Le Touzel

It is a question that has plagued me for years now. This is probably the least regarded of Jane Austen's novels. A pity, really, because it is a sweet story of quietness and constancy: Fanny Price is sent to live at her wealthy uncle Sir Thomas Bertram's estate and is witness to the misbehaviors and self-importances of her cousins and their new "friends" the Crawfords. Fanny is good, genuine, dutiful and little appreciated. She is not Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse, but she is beautiful, and kind and persistent in truth. She assists her sleepy, simple aunt Lady Bertram, endures the criticism from her Aunt Norris and resists the enticements of flatterer Henry Crawford. I love this novel, because Fanny endures to be true to herself and to her family.

There have been three movies/mini-series attempting to encapsulate Mansfield Park. The 1986 miniseries is the version closest to the book, and built more like a play than a film, it captures the story in its entirety (like two two excellent adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels Wives and Daughters and North and South). Over all, miniseries have the advantage in translating novels into a visual form, as they are long enough to adequately balance the major and minor details. The Billie Piper version, which aired on the BBC in 2007, while takes strange liberties with the story in order to shorten it, remains true to her character. These two versions understand that Fanny's goodness, kindness and selfless love are the heart of this story. The 1999 does not.

The choices that the writers of 2007 made for their version are understandable. I could write a paper on the comparisons - why Fanny's journey back to her native Portsmouth isn't fundamentally necessary, how the story is made to work without such elements. But I grow increasingly puzzled over the 1999 film, starring Frances O'Connor. Both 2007 and 1999 show a condensed story. Both had to "cut" elements in order to give it a cinematic pace. 1999 makes bold choices - perhaps too bold - and seems to be using Mansfield Park as a shell, a disguise for creating a film about the social improprieties and harshness of a household built on decadence and slavery in 1806. It is, as Michelle put it so wonderfully long ago, "emotionally unkind" about the past.

The writers of Mansfield Park1999 decided to make harsh implications , most particularly on the characters, that never existed in the first place. Sir Thomas has plantations in the West Indies in Antigua - the novel shows Sir Thomas taking his eldest son Tom with him to settle unspecified problems there. Naturally, the screenwriters thought this was an excuse to write Sir Thomas as an abusive land-holder; operating on the assumption: "well, if he has slaves and if he's having trouble with the plantation, he must be abusing them." Hence, uncomfortable discussions about abolition and comparing slaves to mules. In addition to this, Sir Thomas' personality is more than that of a distant father, but a man more inclined to anger, cruelty and innuendo. He is not supposed to be a scary man. But in Harold Pinter, who is too creepy for the part in my opinion, he is definitely one I would not like for my uncle. He is not supposed to have an evil eye… but Pinter gives him one.

More importantly is the issue of Fanny's character. Fanny is not Fanny in this version. She is a composite of Fanny and young Jane Austen. While it is an interesting experiment - to put Jane's words into the mouths of her characters - it makes me wonder if the screenwriters saw Fanny's quiet appreciation of churches, constellations and Cowper to be too mild. In making her a writer (a novelist at a time when novels were first manifesting as an art form), she is allowed a sharp tongue and an exuberant spirit. Her original traits of service, patience and love are eclipsed by her novel-writing, which is not a part of her personality in the novel. In the film, her relationship with Edmund is that of best friends, with strong inclinations toward silliness and chasing each other through the house (incurring shouts from grumpy Sir Thomas). In the novel, Edmund, who is supposed to be six years older, was the first to befriend Fanny and warmly accept her into the family; he was her teacher of sorts and they share many an intellectual discussion in the course of Jane's novel. They think alike. They respect each other. And Edmund goes to Fanny when he is troubled. In the film, his character is weaker… less tormented by his confusion over Mary Crawford. He more falls into Mary's clutches rather than cautiously debating whether or not he loves her.

Another issue is of Fanny's constancy or, rather, conviction. The scheming Henry Crawford, once enamored by Fanny's cousin Maria, asks Fanny to marry him and she refuses because she cannot trust him, and knows she cannot trust him. Sir Thomas is shocked, makes her feel guilty, believes she doesn't know her own feelings and quietly lets her spend three months in Portsmouth with her poor and noisy family. Crawford arrives there, heaps kindness on her family, but Fanny, despite his sincerity, still does not trust him. In the film, Crawford deliberately follows her to Portsmouth, presenting her with fireworks and offering to help her family financially until she eventually accepts him… only to refuse him the day after. "I have no gift for certainty," Fanny tells her sister Susan. This could not be farther from the novel. Instead, it is demonstrated that Fanny's knowledge of the truth holds out against Crawford's inconstancy… and eventually proves him to be false when he runs off with the married Maria. The affair is supposed to happen as a result of Crawford's inconstancy, not Fanny's inability to decide whether or not Crawford's intentions are true to his heart.

And here is a matter of Mary Crawford… portrayed by Embeth Davidtz. In the films, she is a woman of overt sexuality (um... was it really fashionable to show so much cleavage in 1806??), outwardly flirting, smoking her brother's cigar and accepting the part of Amelia in the sordid Lover's Vows with no hesitation. Regardless of my personal opinion that Embeth is too old, her Mary misses the mark by being too sharp, too certain of Edmund's love and his willingness to marry her. Do you see what I mean? In the novel, Mary's character flaws are the result of being "in the world", educated by London social circles. She is more ignorant than cunning, less willing to snare Edmund than she is in teasing him about being a clergyman or convince him to leave the profession. Edmund spends much of the novel agonizing over his feelings for her - always on the verge of asking for her hand, but never quite succeeding until final comments from her mouth make it obvious that she "was a creature of my imagination." Their lack of agreement on fundamental things keeps them apart.

So, Jillian, are there any good aspects of the 1999 film Mansfield Park? It makes an awesome effort to be pretty. Ball-room scenes are captured in slow motion. The music is exquisite. I like the ending of the film wherein Fanny narrates what becomes of Maria and Aunt Norris and the rest of the family, "It all could have turned out differently, I suppose… but it didn't." Unfortunately…I find the little unnecessarily-added details of Lady Bertram's opium habit (seemingly implanted to explain her perpetual fatigue), the deletion of the character of Fanny's beloved brother William, the missing quietness of Fanny's character and other "little" pieces distract me too much… and make me sad.

And 2007, starring Billie Piper? Billie is very true to the spirit of Fanny, which reconciles me to the rest of the film. It is only 90 minutes long, which required the eliminations of Portsmouth and a formal ball, but it makes a better attempt of retelling the story than using it to create something different. Again: Fanny's quietness and patience. Sir Thomas is a little harsh, but he learns to see Fanny as a daughter by the end. The story is redemptive and blossoms here. As it should. And who doesn't love Billie? I am convinced (perhaps out of Doctor Who bias for Rose Tyler) that she can do anything!

And 1986? Corny! Bad costuming! Questionable acting, especially when it comes to the creepy-looking Henry Crawford! But it deserves praise because it tries very hard to be true to Jane's novel, and makes no blatantly unkind assumptions about the characters or the story. It shows Fanny as a witness to the opinions and selfishness of those around her. She is a small, plain looking thing, but she is true to herself… and her love for Edmund is long-suffering and beautiful.

There aren't enough Fanny Prices in the literary world today. Perhaps the 1999 was an attempt to modernize her, to make her more interesting and not so buried in the back ground of the antics of her cousins, an independent thinker who hasn't been seemingly molded by Edmund's wisdom. Whatever the intent, she lost some of her trueness. Not to say that I blame Frances O'Connor - not at all! I just look to Billie and Sylvestra Le Touzel… because they fully reflect Fanny, the heart of Mansfield Park. If a film or a miniseries cannot reflect the unquestionable heart of the story it claims to portray, it is a sad, sad thing. Anyway, read the novel, explore the various film versions! Judge for yourself!


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