The 1983 miniseries of Mansfield Park, dramatised by Ken Taylor, is quite a faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. While overacted at times, it is for the most part a very well done production. So much of the dialogue is straight from the book — Jane Austen’s own delightful, perfect dialogue with Miss Crawford’s light banter, Fanny’s rhapsodizing, and so on — as to be most gratifying.
The childhood scenes are very good, though a bit too melodramatic from time to time. Young Fanny is properly timid and grateful, and Edmund very kind. I particularly enjoyed the scene where he helps Fanny write a letter to her brother. Tom is shown teasing Fanny and giving her a present. Maria and Julia expound Fanny’s “stupidity” to their aunt, but invite her to join their games when a third would be useful. The change from childhood to adulthood is shown with scenes of Edmund reading to Fanny from William Cowper’s poem “The Task” — a poem Fanny actually quotes from in the book — showing his part in her education and in forming her tastes.
The actors for the adult characters were chosen well. Bernard Hepton as Sir Thomas is appropriately stately, always the gentleman. Tom and Edmund are very fine young men, Maria and Julia handsome and stylish. Miss Crawford is also pretty and suitably lively, though with rather an odd hair-style. Mr. Crawford has a fashionable air. Lady Bertram and Aunt Norris are well-looking, with Lady Bertram being sufficiently indolent (she plays a comic character, unfortunately exaggerated on occasion — her voice can be rather annoying). Anna Massey plays a deliciously sharp and bulling Aunt Norris, putting in one of the best performances of the film. Fanny herself is pretty in a quiet way, with gentle manners.
Fanny’s letter writing to her brother William is used to transition between different parts of the story. Although voice-over narration is generally avoided in films, I believe, I thought it worked well here. Giving Fanny’s thoughts in the form of letters to William was a neat idea, showing at once how close they were and how little others cared for Fanny’s opinion. I was reminded of the passage in the book, “And Fanny, what was she doing and thinking all this while? and what was her opinion of the newcomers? Few young ladies of eighteen could be less called on to speak their opinion than Fanny.” (ch. 5). And giving the film’s ending the form of a letter to William gave it a similar “epilogue” feel to that of the book’s conclusion.
Although extremely faithful to the book, this adaptation does take a few liberties. The ages of various of Fanny’s siblings are changed. Henry Crawford and Maria are shown kissing while rehearsing their scene instead of “trying not to embrace” (ch. 18), probably because it was easier to depict. Added in when Edmund comes to fetch Fanny from Portsmouth is Mr. Price insulting Edmund to his face, telling him that “putting to sea” is “a true man’s life” — better than to “skulk indoors” as “a sniveling parson”. On the other hand, an important scene, that of Sir Thomas offering to release Maria from her engagement to Mr. Rushworth, was not dramatised.
As an aside, I would like to point out that failure to dramatise a particular scene from a novel does not make an adaptation unfaithful to its source. Most novels contain way too much material to fit into a single movie — even if it is a miniseries. I mention this because I have several times come across critisisms of this particular miniseries, saying that it is not a faithful adaptation because it completely ignores any mention of the slave trade — a subject which is only mentioned very briefly in passing in the novel itself.
This is not a particularly brilliant miniseries, but there were only a few things that I really disliked about it. For the most part, Sylvestra Le Touzel’s portrayal of Fanny Price is fine. She is sweet, retiring, industrious, and observant. During the scene when her uncle scolds her, however, I thought her crying much overdone — she becomes practically hysterical. I didn’t like the depiction of her brother William — he is too pouty and almost servile at times. And, although amusing, I don’t really like the hairstyles of Edmund, Mary, and Mr. Yates. Edmund’s was too messy and Miss Crawford’s was just plain odd. Mr. Yates’s topknot was an absolute riot, but I wouldn’t take him as a model in fashion.
The acting in this production was, by and large, quite solid, with a few brilliant moments. I love Sir Thomas’s look at Mrs. Norris when she declares that “dear sister Price must wait” after discovering that she would have to pay her own way back if she visited her. And the cut from Lady Bertram saying on Fanny’s return to Mansfield, “Now I shall be comfortable again” to her snoozing on the sofa was superb!
Compared to the scenes at Mansfield, the Portsmouth scenes are suitably noisy and disorderly. Alison Fiske as Mrs. Price was good — fretful and indifferent. Mr. Price was very loud, coarse, and disagreeable. There was a great deal too much of his raucous singing portrayed, I thought — a very little would suffice! (Julia’s singing as a child wasn’t so great, either. The glee was the only tolerable bit of singing in the miniseries.)
Having Mr. Crawford quoting from ‘Lovers’ Vows’ in his (decidedly successful) attempt to overcome Mrs. Rushworth’s coldness toward him in London was a very appropriate choice, recalling as it does the damage done by the ill-judged playacting. The scene is filmed in an interestingly metaphorical way, with Henry and Maria dressed in black and their lines recalling their behaviour at the time of the Mansfield theatricals. However, the speed with which they are portrayed as becoming entangled with each other, makes Henry’s continued love for Fanny somewhat unconvincing.
Edmund is depicted as falling in love with Fanny almost immediately after breaking with Mary and their move into the Mansfield parsonage follows very closely after the wedding. But, as the ending is little more than a postscript at the end of the novel, this presentation isn’t too bad. The less time spent on material which was not actually detailed by Jane Austen, the better. And, besides, I do believe that was Fanny’s very own Pug with them at the end!
There are some lovely costumes designed by Ian Adley. Miss Crawford wears some especially elegant, fashionable-looking gowns and Fanny has several very pretty dresses, as do Maria and Julia. The gentlemen’s costumes suit the characters nicely. Mansfield Park is tastefully furnished and has handsome grounds. There is some pretty scenery throughout the film, but most of the outdoor scenes are unfortunately washed out in appearance and lacking definition. Fanny’s East room — her “nest of comforts” — was furnished with beautiful preciseness, including many of the little details that Jane Austen described. The theme music for the opening credits is fine, though in general the music is uninteresting and dated. It is usually unobtrusive, however, and there are a few enjoyable dance tunes along with some pretty harp music from Miss Crawford.
Objectionable content is limited to some swearing from Fanny’s father. There are some kisses between a man and someone else’s fiancée/wife and talk of a married woman running away with another man, but the affair is portrayed as wrong and hurtful.
Although very good and enjoyable, this miniseries is certainly not a definitive adaptation. I would very much like to see a new miniseries of Mansfield Park, with this one’s faithfulness to the novel, but with more brilliance — something, perhaps, in the style of the 1995 adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or the 1999 miniseries ‘Wives and Daughters’. Several of the 1980s Jane Austen adaptations are making way for newer miniseries (e.g. the 1995 ‘P&P’, the 2008 ‘Sense and Sensibility’, and the 2009 ‘Emma’), and I think it is high time for one of Mansfield Park.
Trivia: The actors who play Edmund and Fanny, Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel later played together in ‘Amazing Grace’ (2006) as a married couple — the delightful Henry and Marianne Thornton, who assiduously endeavor to make a match between their indignant friends William Wilberforce and Barbara Spooner.