Commentators all around the world, from every relevant discipline, have thrown in their two cents worth on Patricia Rozema's very modern adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park.
Freely combining elements of the novel with material from the author's letters and teenage writings, Rozema gives us a new screen rendition of Austen, complete with sex, slang ("Keep your wig on!") and a painfully correct political sensibility.
I can sympathise with the impulse to make such literary material more immediate, passionate and cinematic, as Michael Winterbottom did in Jude (1996). I can forgive most liberties taken in the process of adaptation; fidelity to old novels is surely an overrated virtue.
The way in which Rozema loads this story, however, is often risible and gratuitous – a mere display of her contemporary righteousness. Although this film flows better and entertains more than Jane Campion's disastrous version of The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Rozema falls into many of the same traps.
Irrelevancies and overstatements abound. Whenever the sophisticated, twinkly-eyed Mary (Embeth Davidtz) lays a finger on the youthful and wary Fanny (Frances O'Connor), there is a frisson of lesbianism. Whenever a reference to American slavery is dragged in, Rozema labours her metaphor: women, everywhere, are no more than chattels.
We are not far from The Portrait of a Lady's heavy-handed images of young girls fainting as they are strapped into their Victorian corsets.
Whatever one makes of Rozema's intentions, Mansfield Park is a glib, static film. As in every Rozema movie (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing , White Room ), the world is divided into two groups. Radical free spirits – sensitive, intelligent, the only hope for humankind's future – are opposed to the deadwood of a conservative, declining society.
The baddies in Mansfield Park – and that's almost everyone except Fanny – are shallow, hypocritical types, perhaps indulging a spot of libertinage before stepping back into their sorry, bourgeois destinies. Few films are as relentlessly dualistic: while all the negatively portrayed characters move stiffly and gracelessly, Fanny is all motion and illumination. She laughs, runs, plays – and gets an evident kick from riding horses.
Rozema rarely knows what to do with her male characters; the alibi that men should be secondary ciphers in a woman's film wears out quickly. The handsome guys in Mansfield Park (such as Alessandro Nivola's Henry) are stupid, and the older ones (such as Harold Pinter's Sir Thomas) are fearsomely patriarchal. The only truly good man in this story, Fanny's childhood companion Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), is a pale, sexless creature.
As costume films with romantic ideas about liberation and self-realisation go, Mansfield Park is not all bad. O'Connor brings enormous charm and vibrancy to her role. There are witty, sardonic moments devoted to the would-be aristocratic manners of Sir Thomas' clan. The perky music (Lesley Barber) and lustrous cinematography (Michael Coulter) lift the project above a bland, tele-movie piece like Marleen Gorris' Mrs Dalloway (1998).
But, ultimately, Rozema's sense of screen drama is as dissatisfying and inert as her posturing style of right-on politics.
© Adrian Martin April 2000