Mansfield Park (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

The film generally received a highly positive reception, but some carped at the liberties it took with the source material.

A brief word on that. It is generally necessary to take liberties to translate period material to our modern sensibilities. Strict adherence to the text leaves us without most of the nuances. At the time that Jane Austen wrote, certain things were uniformly understood - moral attitudes, the attitude of men toward different types of women, and vice-versa, which types of behavior and speech seemed stylized and artificial to them (remember sometimes even the casual behavior of the lower classes seems stylized and artificial to us), etc.

If a filmmaker wants us to respond to Austen or Shakespeare as their own audiences did, he or she has to seek filtering devices that will allow their conversations to come to our ears with full understanding. In this regard, this film does an excellent job. It isn't what Austen wrote so much as what she would write if she wanted us to understand it.

Very quick summary: Fanny has been sent by her impoverished mom to live with her rich aunt. She intends this to be a blessing, but Fanny first feels abandoned, and in the next stage feels herself a second-class citizen, trapped somewhere between family and servitude. In the third stage, as she uses her wits to attain full acceptance, she finds that the life of a first-class female citizen is not that much better than second-class. She wants a life with integrity, and would just as soon return to poverty as marry a man she doesn't trust. With her solid education and good mind, she wishes to express her thoughts rather than to be treated as a figurine. Society has other ideas.

Mansfield Park has always been considered Jane Austen's most autobiographical work, and many consider it her most lifeless and her most excessively verbose. Much of it exists as an interior monologue. The filmmaker chose to embellish the semi-autobiographical life of Fanny Price with the completely autobiographical life of Jane Austen, as seen in her own letters, which become Fanny's letters to her sister back home. To further obviate the need for voice-over narration, Fanny speaks directly to the camera.


Victoria Hamilton's nipple was seen very briefly.
When I write these comments, I try to pull my tastes out of the report to the extent possible in order to try to give you the info you need to determine whether you will like it. Let me say this candidly. I like the movie a lot. Most of you will not.

If you are interested in these types of period pieces and Jane Austen in particular, it is literate, witty, and I think you'll enjoy it. If you are not, it does not try to reach out to you. What do I mean by that? "Amadeus", for example, tries to extend its range to make the movie interesting even if you don't know jack about Mozart, even if you don't like Mozart, by focusing on the most quirky elements of the great genius that might appeal to our era, the mysterious jealousy of Salieri, and the issue of the nature of genius and how we non-geniuses respond to it in any time and place. Mansfield Park, on the other hand, doesn't go for the broadening route. In my opinion, it does an excellent job at bringing to light the family interactions of the early nineteenth century so that modern eyes and ears can understand them fully, but that's all it does. If that doesn't sound interesting to you, the film won't offer an olive branch of alternative entertainment.

The movie makes extensive use of subtlety in its dramatic irony and in the interactions between the characters. To understand, sometimes you have to watch not only the speakers, but the others in the room to see how they react. I have found that subtlety is a great virtue in art, but a virtually worthless currency in entertainment. Most people won't be entertained by this movie unless they really work at it, and most people do not want to put the effort into an all-talk period piece about the English mores at the dawn of the 1800's.

TUNA's COMMENTS in yellow:

Mansfield Park (1999) is a BBC production based on the novel of the same name by Jane Austen. It was adapted for the screen and directed by Patricia Rozema who showed a great knowledge of and respect for Jane Austen in her approach. The novel was told as a series of letters, which, of course, is not especially conducive to a screen play. The job was even tougher in that the words are the real joy of Austin's work, but with a wonderful development of characters through the words.

Set at the beginning of the 19th century, it is the story of a poor young girl who is given by her mother to rich relatives, with the hope that she will live a better life, and to have one less mouth to feed at home. The girl, Fanny Price, arrives at Mansfield Hall, only to find out that she is not "just visiting," and that she is to be nearly a servant, and is looked down upon by the other members in the house, including her distant cousins, Maria and Julia, who are about her age. While the family is "old money," they are trying to maintain their status by engaging in the slave trade. Fanny is sharp by nature, with a gift for writing, and makes great use of her surroundings to grow into the brightest of the girls, and becomes a power in the household. Cousin Maria marries a dolt of a neighbor, but really wants Henry, a womanizing but dashing guest at the manor. Henry's equally dashing sister sets her sites on Maria's brother Edmund, whom Fanny has loved since the moment she met him.

Eventually, Henry declares his love for Fanny, but Fanny doesn't trust him, and her heart belongs to another. When he asks the head of the house for her hand, Uncle Thomas tries to force Fanny to marry Henry. When she refuses, Thomas sends her home to her mother. Eventually, she is brought back to help with a family crisis. The eldest son has fallen seriously ill, and she nurses him back to health. Meanwhile, she catches Henry in bed with the married Maria, proving what she suspected all along about him. Henry and Maria run off together, creating a huge scandal.

I will leave the conclusion for you to discover.

In fleshing out the character of Fanny, Rozema borrowed heavily on Jane Austen's life, and even used some of her earliest writings as Fanny's work. Her Fanny is bright, quick witted, with a "tongue that cuts sharper than a guillotine." She is also beautiful, kind, and moral. The book should have been named Fanny Price, not Mansfield Park. Rozema tried to focus on characters, rather then on period dress and sets, but she did not overlook the production's artistic aspects, and created a very attractive film. I am not huge on period character driven dramas, but Fanny was so appealing, and played so well by Frances O'Connor, that I was won over

DVD info from Amazon.

1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen enhanced for 16x9 screens.

full-length commentary

"making of" documentary


A sidebar - the playwright Harold Pinter, a virtual demigod in modernist theater, plays the part of Thomas, the head of the rich household to which Fanny moves. While he is a bit stiff, the part called for stiffness, and he really did quite a good job in a very important role. I was impressed with his characterization, as well as with his basso voice. Amazing for a 70 year old guy who's never really done any significant acting.

An interesting topic for post-dinner conversation with intelligent friends. Which female has made the greatest artistic contribution to mankind in all our history? For the moment, consider the arts only, no sciences, religion, entertainment or politics allowed. Has to be an artist, writer, sculptor, architect, or in another recognized field of aesthetic achievement. If you include men in the debate, you have Shakespeare and Michelangelo as obvious candidates, maybe a few others. But if you throw men out of the debate, who wins? My former colleague, Cambridge-educated in Literature, used to contend that the correct answer is Jane Austen. While I am not overwhelmed by her greatness, she was one of the best writers of her century and I can't come up with a better answer. Perhaps some of you have a theory? Can it be that no other woman has bested Austen's achievements in these past 150 years?

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: Between three and three and a half stars, but no really bad reviews and 4/4 from Ebert. Berardinelli 3/4, Apollo 73.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 81% positive overall, 69% from the top critics.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.8, which would be in the top 250 of all time if it had enough votes. Apollo users 72/100.
  • With their dollars ... good reviews, but not a mass market film. $5 million domestic box on a very limited release (132 screens)

Return to the Movie House home page