Bodices may not be ripped, but they are certainly loosened in this very liberal adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. This is not your mother’s “Mansfield Park.” Fans of the book are warned early on that there will be some significant departures when the credits read that the screenplay, by director Patricia Rozema, is adapted not just from the novel, but also from the letters and journals of its author, Jane Austen. And indeed, Rozema has effectively removed the book’s frail and mousy — if resolutely honorable — heroine, and replaced her with some amalgam of Austen’s feistier characters plus a dash of Austen herself. Then she threw in a little bit of Jo March, Susan B. Anthony, and even Scarlet O’Hara for good measure.
And, for those who are not literary purists, it is good measure indeed. The movie version’s heroine is far more cinematic than the Fanny Price of the book, and the adaptation works remarkably well. Less successful is the attempt to import 20th century sensibility on issues like slavery (Fanny’s wealthy relatives own slaves in the West Indies) and some wild anachronisms (Fanny lies casually on her bed while she talks to her male cousin; neighbor Mary Crawford even more casually smokes a small cigar). And there is even that most unforgivable sin of movies set in the past – a character who says, “After all, it’s 1806!”
In the movie, as in the book, Fanny Price is from a large and very poor family. When she is a young girl, she is invited to stay with rich relatives as something between a servant and a companion. She is befriended by her cousin Edmund, but ignored by his dissolute older brother Tom and his selfish sisters, neglected by their parents, and bullied by her aunt, also a poor relative under their care. She grows up reading everything she can and doing her best to get along with everyone.
Henry Crawford and his sister Mary, both wealthy and attractive, come to stay nearby. Omni-seductive, they are both weak-willed and manipulative. They charm everyone but Fanny, creating many crises of honor and reputation.
The movie is sumptuously produced. Australian actress Frances O’Connor is terrific as Fanny. To use one of Austen’s favorite words, she is “lively,” but she is also able to show us Fanny’s unshakeable honor and dignity. Playwright Harold Pinter is outstanding as Lord Bertram.
Families should talk about some of the issues raised by the movie, including the family’s dependence on slaves in the West Indies to maintain their luxurious lifestyle, and the limited options available to women that led Fanny’s cousin Maria to insist on marrying a foolish – but wealthy – man. They should also discuss the Crawfords, two of Austen’s most intriguing characters. With wealth and charm of their own, why was manipulating others so important to them? One of the great moral crises of the book is whether the young people should put on a play (answer: they should not because it would create too great an intimacy). But Austen never shied away from having characters make ineradicable moral and social mistakes, and most of her books feature at least one couple who run off together without getting married and suffer some serious consequences. Perhaps in frustration over the difficulty of making those actions seem real to today’s audiences, or perhaps just as a way of making a classic work seem unstuffy, this movie has more implicit and explicit sexuality than we have seen in other movies based on Austen’s books (except maybe for “Clueless”). Parents should know that there is one scene with an implied lesbian interest and a brief inexplicit scene of an adulterous couple. Fanny finds drawings depicting abuse of slaves, including rape. Fanny’s aunt takes opium, her cousin is often drunk, and Fanny gets tipsy at a party.