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Mansfield Park

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  • noelv@i-next.net
    Adulterated Austen Noel Vera Patricia Rozema s version of Jane Austen s Mansfield Park, is, on the surface at least, a joy to watch. The film--about Fanny
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 31, 1969
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      Adulterated Austen

      Noel Vera

      Patricia Rozema's version of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park," is, on the
      surface at least, a joy to watch. The film--about Fanny Price, a poor
      young girl living with her wealthier relatives, the Bertrams--is lively
      and swiftly paced. It has a real look--a severe gray light that mutes
      outdoor colors (suggesting the severity of proper English society) but
      floods glass windows with a brilliant glow (suggesting those all-important
      dramatic moments). It even has a sense of playfulness, with the actors
      suddenly freezing in place to drive home a point or punchline--a repeated
      gesture that emphasizes the theatricality of the film's style.

      Rozema also puts a few odd spins on Austen, adding a suggestively
      flirtatious scene between Price and the novel's putative villain, Mary
      Crawford--a teasing homoerotic encounter full of tightly knotted corsets,
      clinging cotton stays, and swelling cleavage. She allows Price a little
      modern-day indignation, having her condemn the basis of Sir Thomas
      Bertram's wealth in the trafficking of Africans as slaves (Price no doubt
      equating this with her own condition as a woman). She even has Price
      addressing the audience directly, revealing her thoughts in the intimately
      confessional style of Humbert Humbert in "Lolita," or Alex DeLarge in "A
      Clockwork Orange," or (choosing an example from a more similar period)
      Barry Lyndon, in the novel of the same name.

      Which is where I think the film misses the novel's point. Fanny isn't a
      character in the wild and grotesquely comic mode of Nabokov or Burgess (or
      even Thackeray), she's a character out of Austen--a great writer with a
      flavor, a sensibility, an entire vision all her own.

      One of the most telling analysis of Austen I have ever read comes from, of
      all people, novelist Olaf Stapledon ("Last and First Men," "Odd
      John," "Starmaker"). Stapledon notes that Austen writes about very
      ordinary things (marriage, money, the goings-on in a small, rigidly
      structured society) but her way of appreciating them is far from ordinary--
      she looks at her characters coolly, clinically, as if from a distance or a
      great height. Yes, you feel she has sympathy for her heroines--for Emma,
      for Elizabeth, and for Fanny--but it's a clear-eyed kind of sympathy, one
      that sees all their flaws as well as virtues. Austen writes like an alien
      intelligence come down to Earth to observe a small, strange community of
      humans (coincidentally--or maybe not--Stapledon writes science fiction
      novels). This is the source of her comedy, of the clarity of her vision.

      Given this, all of Rozema's additions (the homoeroticism, the anger
      against slavery, the self-confessional mode of storytelling) could be seen
      for what they really are, as distractions. Austen isn't at all about sex
      or slavery; she isn't even about her putative subjects, who marries who
      and inherits whose fortune. She's all about seeing a human being in the
      round, about not being condescending or quickly judgmental to the tiniest,
      most eccentric detail of the person she is writing about, or the society
      he belongs to.

      Mind you, I'm hardly a purist--my favorite Austen film happens to be Amy
      Heckerling's "Clueless," a funny, unstuffy transposition of Austen into
      modern-day Beverly Hills that manages, nevertheless, to be remarkably
      faithful, retaining the three-dimensionality of its characters (in Beverly
      Hills, no less! It�s an achievement comparable to Austen�s--taking a much
      ridiculed community (even more ridiculed, nowadays), and exalting it with
      her perceptions). Unadulterated Austen, however, should be done by a
      filmmaker who can capture that simultaneous sense of objective distance
      and emotional intimacy, set in a complex culture. Jean Renoir comes to
      mind, not to mention Satiyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, Edward Yang (to name
      someone still alive), Hou Hsiao Hsien (if he can ever find himself a sense
      of humor), even Hayao Miyazaki (And why not? Austen as anime! Fanny
      Price with big eyes, small mouth...in a masterfully nuanced performance).

      As for the cast--Frances O'Connor makes a lovely Fanny Price, and bears an
      uncanny resemblance to Embeth Davidtz, who plays Mary Crawford (O'Connor
      could almost be Davidtz's younger sister). Famous playwright Harold
      Pinter ("Betrayal," "Turtle Diary") makes for an intense Thomas Bertram.
      Lindsay Duncan plays a double role, both as Fanny's mother and (in the
      single funniest role in the film) as the gloriously zonked-out, opium-
      addicted Mrs. Bertram. The cast is talented, they give their all;
      nevertheless, they are handicapped by the coarsening of their respective
      roles, the simplification of Austen's masterful characterization for the
      sake of good cinema, or at least good entertainment.

      (Comments? Mail me at <noelv@...>)

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