I was not favorably impressed with this adaptation of Mansfield Park. I had not high hopes for it when I first saw it, and it does not improve with re-watching. Where is the gentlemanly, high-minded Sir Thomas? Where the nasty, over-bearing Aunt Norris? But, most of all, where, oh where, is Jane Austen’s gentle, conscientious, retiring Fanny Price? For none of them make an appearance in this movie. Instead, they are replaced with a mean, ill-tempered man called Sir Thomas; a placid, rather sweet-looking Aunt Norris; and an energetic, confident, sulky young woman, called Fanny Price.
At the beginning of the movie, Sir Thomas practically sneers out how, in receiving young Fanny, they must be prepared for “an ignorant child with vulgar manners”. Aunt Norris (who apparently lives at Mansfield Park) has a manner more gentle than sharp. Lady Bertram is, of course, concerned for her Pug. A voiceover from the adult Fanny tells us to imagine ourselves a young girl removed from her home to live with her aunts and becoming “the poor relation”. She tells about Edmund’s kindness to her while the young Fanny and Edmund play battledore (or some game with shuttlecocks) and then transition to their older selves. Immediately noticeable are Fanny’s hair hanging down to her shoulders (she never wears it up during the entirety of the movie) and her eyebrows which, despite her blond hair, are very dark.
Several of Fanny’s dresses are outdated (as are Lady Bertram’s and Mrs. Norris’s) and very revealing. Her period-correct gowns are quite pretty in general, however. It is a pity Sir Thomas could not afford to keep his wife and niece in the fashions of the period. Perhaps Tom’s extravagance prevented this?
This Fanny is not above lying to get what she wants. When she wants to go riding with Edmund, but her Aunt Norris has other plans for her, Fanny simply tells her that she has “a very tedious errand to run for my cousin.” The movie moves on at a brisk pace from Fanny growing older to Sir Thomas’s departure to Antigua to the arrival of the Crawfords. At least initially, the Crawfords were overdone. As they walk to visit the Bertrams (the Grants were cut out for the movie), they lay their plans. Mary immediately begins trying to entice Edmund in a far too obvious manner, despite his being the younger son. Probably for reasons of simplicity, the Crawford’s uncle is changed to their step-father.
Mr. Yates is also cut from the story. His part is given to Tom Bertram — it is Tom who comes “on the wings of disappointment”1 (to use the phrase from the book) after an aborted attempt to put on a play. Edmund objects to Tom’s theatrical plans, but, oddly enough, Fanny is not shown to have any particular problem with them. Julia asks her if she minds being left out, and Fanny’s only answer is, “No. Besides, your father would not approve and I can’t afford to displease him.” When Julia refuses to play, Fanny is asked to take her part, and she agrees. (Later in the movie, Fanny does tell Henry Crawford that she does not wish Sir Thomas had not come back, as “I think everyone indulged themselves enough” during this time.) Sir Thomas comes in on the playacting and throws a copy of the play into the fire in front of everybody (including the Crawfords, people he doesn’t even know at this point), without saying a word. Instead of controlling himself and focussing on being happy to be home, as he does in the book, he makes a display of his anger.
The scene of Sir Thomas offering to release Maria from her engagement was actually depicted quite well. Sir Thomas is not his usual angry self, but shows genuine concern for his daughter. I must say, however, I don’t see why Maria preferred Henry to Mr. Rushworth in this version. Strangely, Henry Crawford was at Maria’s wedding. Rubbing salt in the wound, I guess. His presence at this time is important, however, because it is after watching the happy couple and Julia off that Henry notices Fanny energetically playing with a random child. She tells him off about the play (something she actually does in the book, though, of course, in different words — this movie isn’t one for using Jane Austen’s dialogue) and he begins to find her interesting.
Instead of giving a ball for Fanny, Sir Thomas grants her request for a picnic. Aunt Norris is displeased, of course. “A picnic indeed! A picnic for half the county. The nonsense and folly of people stepping out of their rank. Now that you are to move into company, Fanny, you must never forget, whatever the occasion, you must be the lowest and the last.” Don’t feel bad, however. This Fanny has no problem being cheeky back to her aunt — “Oh, I shall never forget that — unless, of course, I’m enjoying myself too much to remember.” Ha! Then follows a scene with Edmund giving Fanny a chain for her brother’s cross, stripped, however, of any particular significance.
The picnic includes a game of blind man’s buff, a curious dance from Fanny’s brother William (who is, of course, on his visit to Mansfield Park), a dance, and the following conversation between Mary Crawford and Fanny:
Mary: “My dear Fanny, with your cousins gone, you’re quite the center of attention.”
Fanny: “I think I prefer being overlooked.”
Mary: “Oh, no! You must learn to enjoy it. It serves no purpose to blush unseen. Not that you do.”
This is an important conversation because nothing in Fanny’s behaviour would have told us that she prefers to be overlooked — not, as Mary points out, that she does — so we need to be told. Mary torments Edmund in her own lively way during the party, just as she is supposed to. The evening closes with Fanny and Edmund stargazing outside together.
When Fanny refuses Henry’s proposal of marriage, Sir Thomas gets really nasty again (he had temporarily improved). Of course, he was hard on her in the book, but he never quite got to the degree of nastiness he does in this movie. The level of disgust he portrays throughout the scene is remarkable — “And must I remind you that the luxury to pick and choose is beyond your means!”
Edmund returns to Mansfield after his absence. Fanny bows extravagantly to welcome him home, showing off her chest to the newly ordained clergyman (his absence was for the purpose of ordination). He is enraptured with Mary’s kindness — coming as it did after her taunting at the picnic — and confides in Fanny about it.
Edmund is fine with Fanny’s decision to reject Henry Crawford’s proposal, but Sir Thomas decides she needs time to consider it. Thus, when they go to visit Lady Bertram’s mother (who is, apparently, still alive) they leave Fanny behind — no Portsmouth for her. (Indeed, the movie never moves from Mansfield Park at all.) Henry visits her at Mansfield while she is alone there. Instead of avoiding any talk of Maria and Julia (bringing to mind, as it would, his behaviour to them), he informs Fanny that they are tireless followers of fashion, and lets loose the rather odd bit of information that his sister Mary is actually living with Maria. Edmund dines there, of course. The last he heard of Tom was that he was “at Newmarket, continuing his giddy career of drinking and gambling.” Thus much for Mr. Crawford’s news, but, as Fanny still won’t accept him (she spent her time alone pining for Edmund and tearing up letters to him faster than she could write them), he goes back to London all melancholy, with the ominous words, “Well, leave me to my own judgment, then.”
Fanny is not alone much longer. The Bertrams soon return with a very ill Tom. Lady Bertram is so worried and so glad to see Fanny that she tells her, “Oh, Fanny! My dear Fanny, now I shall be comforted” (emphasis mine2). Mrs. Norris is still worried: “I’m sure I daren’t go near him. With my weak chest it could prove fatal.” Don’t worry, though, a bunch of leeches soon bring him round. Unfortunately, Jane Austen was wrong about Tom’s illness improving him. When Fanny offers to take a turn nursing Tom, Edmund tells her, “I warn you, Fanny, illness has brought out Tom’s true nature in all its wonderful ugliness. He’s a tyrant!” But, no matter, this Fanny can take care of herself.
Fanny: “Well, I shan’t let him tyrannize me.”
Edmund: “We’ll see about that. You’ll give way. You’re too kind to quarrel.”
Fanny: “You should not rely on it, cousin.”
Apart from the change to Fanny’s character and personality, I believe the scene following Fanny nursing Tom is the most astonishing character change from Jane Austen’s story. Mary Crawford arrives at Mansfield Park and Sir Thomas breaks the news of Maria’s elopement with Henry Crawford to her and his family. But, it is the flagrancy of Maria’s act, the scant regard for her family’s honor that Sir Thomas complains of.
Sir Thomas: “Julia is safe with our cousins in Richmond. [Since Mr. Yates was cut, so is Julia’s elopement.] Last week I received a letter from an old friend in London. It contained a good deal to concern me about our daughter Maria. I had no choice but to act immediately. I went to town in the faint hope that my informant might be mistaken, or failing that that I might at least reverse a desperate situation. I need hardly say that I have been disappointed. Maria has left her home and her husband. Flagrantly! Publicly! An utter contempt for her family’s honor, a complete disregard for each and every one of us! She has run away with Mr. Crawford.”
He seems to have taken a leaf out of Miss Crawford’s book. Since she is at Mansfield, her break with Edmund occurs right away. Mrs. Norris decides to devote herself to Maria in her disgrace. So little of her blind affection for Maria and her triumph in arranging her marriage were shown that Mrs. Norris almost seems noble in her choice to leave Mansfield for Maria’s sake. Fanny finds it amusing, “I don’t know who I feel more sorry for — Maria or Aunt Norris.”
With the Crawfords out of the way, Edmund begins to notice Fanny. This is shown in a scene where Lady Bertram asks Fanny whether she should use purple or maroon. Fanny very decisively answers, “The purple, aunt.” And, wow! that sure got Edmund’s attention! He starts looking at her likes he’s never really seen her before. Maybe purple was his favorite color? Then he comes to her bedroom at night while she’s washing her hair in her nightgown! And she lets him in! He’s embarrassed, but she enjoys it. She has to tell him that she must go to bed or he might have stood there goggling at her all night. “You know, I’ve always loved — this room,” he stammers out, before leaving Fanny to giggle by herself.
The next morning, an agitated Edmund runs after Fanny to the breakfast room, without even bothering to tie his cravat, which remains hanging limply down to his waist, and looking, as a result, very much un-dashing. Luckily, the supposedly apathetic Lady Bertram has turned matchmaker and gets Edmund and Fanny off alone together, so he can stop gaping at Fanny over the tea and get his proposal over with. Well, he doesn’t actually propose to her. He rushes frantically out after her (drooping cravat flying in the the breeze), grabs her arm, starts kissing her, and then says, “I love you. I was blind — forgive me.”
I must say, it was very perceptive of Lady Bertram to have noticed what no one — no one — else had noticed. She tells Sir Thomas that “Fanny has been in love with Edmund since she was a little girl.” Sir Thomas throws in one of Henry Crawford’s lines from the book, quoting the poet about a wife being “heaven’s last best gift.” 3
And then they were married — Fanny and Edmund, that is. As the movie is almost over, they must hurry to fit in one last shock. Says Lady B to Sir T, in great perplexity, “Edmund and Fanny have learned a new dance!” Indeed they have, for they are waltzing! However, although waltzing is not correct for the time period, that is scarcely an issue as it goes right along with the out-dated clothes and other incongruities. The new Mr. and Mrs. Bertram decide to make it their business to be happy ever after, and the credits roll.
The music in this adaptation was oddly upbeat — almost comic — in style for the story. It wasn’t bad, just not what I would have expected to find in Mansfield Park. It suits the style of the movie, I guess. Mary’s harp music was very pretty, however, as was the dance music during the picnic. There was a great deal of jerky camera movement throughout the movie, which I found disagreeable and distracting. There was some pretty scenery and several charming costumes. The dress Fanny wears to her birthday picnic was especially pretty, and had the advantage of being one of her dresses that is actually from the correct time period.
Perhaps, though, this is an accurate adaptation after all, as it does mention the slave trade4 (Tom even remarks, “Our little cousin is a friend to abolition”), something a number of people seem to find very important for a faithful adaptation of Mansfield Park.
Obviously, I didn’t like this movie. Even apart from its value as an adaptation of my favorite novel, I didn’t care for it as a movie. Of the representations, Miss Crawford’s was probably the best. She was pretty, lively, and rather saucy. She was still too much from time to time. I suppose her brother wasn’t terrible, either (his depiction, that is — his character is as bad as it is in the book). Apart from some of Fanny’s and Miss Crawford’s clothes, and a distasteful joke from Mr. Rushworth, there isn’t any bad content that I can remember. That’s about the best I can say for this so-called adaptation of Mansfield Park.
Despite, or, rather, because of, it’s defects, Janeites have had a lot of fun with this version. See, for example, this post on AustenBlog: “Facts About Fanny Price”.
1 “The Honourable John Yates …. came on the wings of disappointment, and with his head full of acting”. (Ch. 13)
2 The line in the book has a rather different significance: “By one of the suffering party within they were expected with such impatience as she had never known before. Fanny had scarcely passed the solemn-looking servants, when Lady Bertram came from the drawing-room to meet her; came with no indolent step; and falling on her neck, said, ‘Dear Fanny! now I shall be comfortable.’” (Ch. 46; again, emphasis mine)
3 “I am of a cautious temper, and unwilling to risk my happiness in a hurry. Nobody can think more highly of the matrimonial state than myself. I consider the blessing of a wife as most justly described in those discreet lines of the poet — ‘Heaven’s last best gift.’” (Ch. 4)
4 The slave trade is a subject mentioned briefly in passing in the book. Fanny tells Edmund, “But I do talk to him [her uncle] more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?” Edmund replies, “I did — and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.” (Ch. 21)