You laugh? That seems to be the thrust of Patricia Rozema's adaptation of La Austen's third novel, published in 1814. In the book, our heroine Fanny Price is a wan and listless creature, pushed about by the windy puffs of fate. Not acceptable to Rozema, who wanted a Fanny who was more like . . . well, like Jane Austen herself, tart and funny and dynamic. And perhaps, one dares to presume, somewhat like Rozema herself. And since Rozema was both writer and director, that is exactly what she has wrought.
Is this permitted? Whom should we ask? Is there a bureau of literary license somewhere that examines such petitions, then rules on their allowability? If so, Patricia Rozema has not heard of it, or doesn't give a hoot about it. The result is a sense of the early 19th century as inhabited by a sprite from the late 20th. It's great fun, if not quite a laff riot of the old school. Spirited is the right word, with just a bit of lesbian sexuality thrown in.
Fanny has lost her family but gained the world, and the world tells her she's lucky. But by her own interior compass, ever strong, she has yet to make up her mind. Fanny (played as a child by Hannah Taylor Gordon) is plucked from her dismal slum and sent to Mansfield Park, where the Bertrams hold sway. There she will live as a servant, under the guidance of her aunt who has nabbed the big fellow himself, Sir Thomas Bertram, although she's so depressed by the reality of being married to Harold Pinter (playing Sir Thomas) that she keeps herself groggy with opium distillate over the long years.
But of course, Fanny (played as a young woman by Frances O'Connor) is simply too charming to stay on station. A bright, talented young woman--she's a secret writer, and Rozema bases this Fanny on the actual life of Austen, who wrote her first book at 16--she's soon dazzling the household and making friends with everybody, but especially her soul mate, Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), Sir Thomas's second son. You're thinking: young people alone all the time in a big house with nothing to do. Something's going to happen. But it doesn't.
That's because it's the early 19th century: Herr Doktor Freud hasn't yet loosened all our corsets with his alarming suppositions, and a generation hasn't been slaughtered for nothing in the trenches, so no one is allowed to think of sex. Instead, they think of social position, eligible marriage partners, social decorum, the rules. Another thing the Bertrams try not to think about is the degree to which their whole empire--house, grounds, horses, carriages, servants--rests on the slave labor of the Jamaica plantation that is the family's source of wealth. (Modern note: Rozema thinks of it, and she has Fanny think of it, even if it feels slightly anachronistic.)
This happy repression would last forever were it not for the arrival of the Crawfords. Henry (Alessandro Nivola) and Mary (Embeth Davidtz) represent all that's frightening yet glamorous about the early 19th century. Cosmopolitans, sophisticates, familiar with vice, they move to the country with their fast ways and knock everyone for a loop.
Soon enough, both Crawfords--when Mary does so, that's the lesbian bit--make a move on Fanny, who, stubbornly if not morally, will not respond. It's Sir Thomas who thinks the flashy Henry would make a good mate for Fanny. Alas, Fanny's a romantic: The key to her heart is love, not society's approval or Sir Thomas's ominous preferences.
For, of course, Fanny loves Edmund, Edmund loves Fanny, and even if society says no, they must be free to . . . well, moon goo-goo-eyed at each other and maybe accidentally touch fingertips for .04 of a second--talk about your wild and fast living.
Fanny is too spirited to be broken by society's will or even Sir Thomas's. She's too smart to be taken in by the flashy Crawfords. She's too this week to do anything except triumph. Whatever, it isn't Austen, but it's delicious fun.
Mansfield Park (117 minutes) is rated PG-13 for adult content.
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