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Mansfield Park

September 5, 2010

Mansfield Park (1999)
Director: Patricia Rozema
Actors: Frances O’Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, Harold Pinter

frances-oconnor_mansfield-park.jpg (300×225)

Synopsis: Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) is a poor relative who goes to live with her more illustrious relatives in Mansfield Park. All Mansfield Park’s residents suffer crises of one sort or another when the Crawfords (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz) come into their lives….

Review: Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park posits itself as a little quirkier and less ‘idealised’ than the recent spate of Austen adaptations from the likes of Ang Lee and Douglas McGrath. Out have gone the lavish locations with their sumptuous production design, for something more minimalist and realistic. Rozema achieves this by keeping the number of big set-pieces down, and by concentrating the action at Mansfield Park and Portsmouth almost exclusively. Mansfield Park itself is cleverly conceived – though not entirely rundown, it’s a stately house lacking for the odd lick of paint, and has rooms too large for their limited furnishings. Even the casting is leftfield: eschewing the knack of casting either big names from Hollywood or the A-list Brits, Rozema has gone for an eclectic mix of interesting overseas ‘support’ actors – Embeth Davidtz, Alessandro Nivola, Frances O’Connor – with a group of up-and-coming local talent – Jonny Lee Miller, Victoria Hamilton and Justine Waddell. Arguably the most inspired bit of casting is that of Harold Pinter as the patriarch of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram. Despite struggling once or twice with some of his reactions, Pinter’s exemplary patrician command of diction more than makes up for those shortcomings.

Despite all these promising ingredients though, Rozema’s overall execution lacks the requisite clarity that has evidently gone into the planning. In particular, Rozema seems caught between this idea of creating a neo-Austen piece of work, versus paying homage to the familiar genre trappings of the previous movies. This creates a sense that the plot elements are not really ‘owned’ or shaped enough, such as Fanny’s slow-burn desire for Edmund which lacks any tangible tension or dramatic curve, and the Sir Thomas/Tom slavery subplot that is all but overlooked save for a piecemealed death-bed scene where a delirious Tom has been sketching drawings implicating his father in the exploitation of slaves over in Antigua. Later in the plot however, this development is risibly overlooked as Sir Thomas is seemingly forgiven in the overall dramatic conclusion. More maverick execution to go with the interesting design and casting might have made the film a more memorable addition to the plethora of recent Austen adaptations. (October 2008)

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