A promo for Mansfield Park says, "For everyone who loved Sense and Sensibility." It should read, "For everyone who liked Sense and Sensibility, but wanted to see more than dumb women and garden parties."
After a slew of movies based on Jane Austen’s novels, you might expect yet another predictable plot, another victimized heroine, and another strong man to take charge and save the day. Thankfully, Mansfield Park stands apart.
The film’s writer and director, Canadian Patricia Rozema, gives us Jane Austen with an edge. She uses the framework of Austen’s least read, but most autobiographical book as well as the author’s own journals and letters to create a character that interests the audience.
The basic story involves Fanny Price, who, as a child, is taken in by her rich extended family, the Bertrams. She grows up alongside the privileged children of her beneficiaries, but is always reminded of her lowly beginnings. She develops a friendship with one of the sons, Edmund, and begins to love him deeply. Trouble begins when the Crawfords–an opportunistic brother and sister–enter the scene team looking for people and money to play with. Fanny finds herself under the burden of social expectations, and fights desperately for control of her choices and her future. She lives in an age when her life belongs to the men around her.
Rozema gives Fanny depth by giving her some of Austen’s own characteristics: her intelligence, her independent thinking and her determination to be true to herself. This hybrid is far more interesting than the tragic romantic victim in Austen’s book.
Despite the liberties taken with Fanny’s character, she is real and believable. She is no Xena the Warrior Princess–an empowered woman of the ’90s living impossibly and unconvincingly in another age. Fanny deals with the reality of being treated like a piece of livestock to be sent off to the highest bidder, and the exploration of her fears and motivations are well developed. All the characters find a certain measure of truth when catastrophe brings out their true natures.
The innovative cinematography of Mansfield Park shows Fanny’s lack of control. As a child, when she is shuffled from place to place, it’s as if the audience is being dragged around by the arm just like the little girl. Rozema also manages to create a sensuality that doesn’t just lurk under the surface, but expresses itself overtly. The film is a story of seduction; not just physical seduction, but the seduction of power, prestige and the undeniable pull we all feel towards the unattainable.
Patricia Rozema accomplishes a great feat in Mansfield Park. She creates a story that pulls you in, takes you along for the ride and doesn’t leave you with any pat answers. She uses the story to show the full spectrum of human passion, from the wonderful to the terrible.