Although she was respected by critics both then and now, one could reasonably argue that Jane Austen's works are the equivalent of comfort food. By this I mean that there is a commonality throughout her works that, though the plot may be distinctive, one can be reasonably certain of certain elements dominating the proceedings: Headstrong and intelligent female protagonists, class warfare, brooding but handsome male counterparts, palatial estates, and happy endings that end in marriage. There's nothing wrong with this at all, but it does peak one's interest to discover that Austen's personal favorite work happens to have some of the darkest material to see from her.
Mansfield Park is the estate of Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter), who has decided to take in his wife's niece, Fanny (Hannah Taylor-Gordon) who has lived a very poor life with her parents and siblings. She grows up into a very fetching young woman (Frances O'Connor) of uncommon intelligence. Sir Thomas takes it upon himself to find her a husband, though his choice is not met with her approval as she has eyes for his son Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), who she has come to know quite well while living there. At this revelation, he turns her back out of his home into the squalid life of her childhood, but you'd be a fool to think the story ends there.
As I said, Austen proclaimed this to be her favorite work. Although we can only guess as to why, one cannot help but be struck at how much darker this story is compared to her others. Though there are always consequences to the actions of characters in her stories, the class warfare that is engaged in is often portrayed as a parlor game writ large. Feelings may get hurt, but nothing more. Mansfield Park, on the other hand, is determined to make those consequences real for their characters.
In 1995's Sense & Sensibility, the Dashwood sisters are ejected from the estate they have lived on for so long and forced to live in a cottage. We get the point that it's a step down and the quarters can be somewhat cramped, but compared to Fanny's squalid accommodations at her parent's home, it's downright luxury (especially when the Dashwoods retain their servants). Also, in the same year's Pride & Prejudice, there are scenes where young Lydia runs away with a suitor of ill intentions and endangers the family name. The consequences for this action are huge, yet the scenes that we are shown of her and this cad are never as insidiously portrayed as they could be. In Mansfield Park, there is a scene where a young married woman sleeps with another man and is caught in the act. We are not shown anything graphic (this is still Austen, after all), but such imagery is not typical of her other adaptations. The story continues to take dark turns in this way, and we actually fear for our protagonist in a way that we do not fear for the Bennet and the Dashwood sisters.
It should also be noted that there are some modern touches to this story that have upset Austen purists. One is the inclusion of actual letters written by Austen as monologues for Fanny (spoken to the camera) as she writes to her little sister. For such a genre that seems forever encased in it's Masterpiece Theater trappings, I can imagine how such tactics as breaking the fourth wall are taken by her fans. There is also an interesting filming technique where a camera glides and swoops onto characters only for them to freeze when the camera stops and Fanny fills us in on the characters. It's done with a finesse that does not bring the story to a jarring halt, but rather serves to move the film along quite smoothly.
The cast works well with the material. Frances O'Connor is completely charming as Fanny, and she easily entices the audience to share her thoughts as she negotiates the social circles that intersect at the estate. Trainspotting's Jonny Lee Miller is fine enough as the just-out-of-reach Edmund, but perhaps I'm being unfair when I half expect some James Bond trivia to spill out into his speech. Perhaps most memorable are the characters of Henry and Mary Crawford, portrayed by Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz. These visitors make quite a pair as they weave their way into the Bertram family and showcase their shrewdness for upward mobility.
Despite the modern spin, this is a well told tale with a charming lead performance. Like the Shakespeare devotees who cringe at modern adaptations, Austen fans who prefer their films straight up, no chaser will remain unsatisfied with this version. But the rest of us who are enthralled with the story itself will find much to appreciate and enjoy here.
Eight out of Ten
(This can also be viewed at Blogcritics)