Friday, October 17, 2008

Mansfield Park 1983

I hadn't previously bothered about what I considered the "old" BBC adaptations of Jane Austen's novels done pre-Pride and Prejudice 1995; however, viewing the great acting and quiet charm of Pride and Prejudice 1980 made me sit up and take note. Never again will  I dismiss a movie version of a favourite book simply because it's 'out-dated' or made on a less-than-lavish budget.

I recently finished watching the BBC's 1983 adaptation of Mansfield Park. I'm assuming that most of my readers are at least vaguely familiar with the plot of MP, but for those of you who aren't. . .

Jane Austen begins Mansfield Park by telling us the story of three sisters. 

Sister no.1 marries a Rev. Mr. Norris, a tolerably well-off clergyman.

Sister no.2 has the good fortune to captivate and marry the very wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park.

Sister no.3 marries a charming but penniless sailor by the name of Price, much to the consternation of sisters 1. and 2.

Fast-forward some twenty years: Mr. and Mrs. Norris are still childless. They live and work at Mansfield parsonage, very close by to Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram at Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram have four children: Tom, Edmund, Maria and Julia. Mrs Price (Sister 3) lives in poverty. Her charming sailor turned out to be bit of a good-for-nothing, and she now has half-a-dozen young children to care for. She writes to her wealthy Sister Bertram, begging for help. The Bertrams agree to help by taking on the care of one of the Price children.

And so it came to be that ten-year-old Fanny Price, the eldest girl, was sent to live with her wealthy cousins.

Fanny is a painfully shy, extremely timid child. Her relations mistake her shyness for ill manners. They simply do not understand her, and poor Fanny doesn't receive a very warm welcome. The only one who is kind to her, the one person who takes the time to listen and understand is Fanny's cousin, Edmund.

Young Fanny and Edmund walking together in the ground of Mansfield Park

Fast-forward another nine years: the four Bertram children are now quite grown-up. Tom has grown into a very irresponsible young man. Edmund has grown to be a very responsible young man. Maria and Julia are beautiful and accomplished, ready to enter the 'marriage market' of Regency society.

Fanny is now nineteen, and as quiet and timid as ever. She and Edmund are still very good friends - indeed, her feelings for him are beginning to grow into something beyond what one would normally feel for a cousin and friend. . .

Fanny Price, played by Sylvestra le Touzel

During this most interesting time in the lives of the five young cousins, several notable events unfold:

1. Sir Thomas travels to the West Indies to see to his estate in Antigua. He takes his son, Tom, with him.

2. Maria Bertram get engaged to a Mr. Rushworth, an exceedingly rich, exceedingly stupid young man.

3. Two new arrivals come to stay in the neighbourhood - brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, bringing with them all the sophistication and worldliness of London society.

The two Bertram girls promptly fall in love with Mr. Crawford; Maria despite her engagement to Mr. Rushworth. Meanwhile, Edmund seems to be falling for the glamorous Miss Crawford. . . Fanny is the beholder and observer of all of this. 

OK, I won't go an further - I don't want to spoil it for anyone who doesn't know the story, and I don't want to bore any who do know how the story ends.

There have been three film/TV adaptations of MP made in recent years. ITV produced a short TV movie based on MP as part of their "Jane Austen Season". It was OK for what it was, I guess. It's main flaws were a. it was too short, only 90 minutes, b. Billie Piper was entirely miscast as Fanny Price, and c. it was clearly made on a very slim budget - the whole thing was shot at just one location!

The 1999 film probably needn't even be mentioned here. Basically, the director, Patricia Rozema, took the title and the characters of the book (and the name of the author - the name of Jane Austen has become a great selling point), and twisted and changed both characters and plot to suit her own agenda. It's not a bad film, but it really isn't a proper adaptation of Mansfield Park at all.

And so we come to Mansfield Park 1983, a five hour, six-episode miniseries. Opinion seems to be divided over MP83. It seems you'll either like it, or you won't. 

Mansfield Park is not Jane Austen's most popular novel, but it is, I think, one of her best. It is a very moral book. Fanny Price is a very moral heroine. In no way could she be interpreted as a feminist (mind you, people have tried to mould her into feminist, but they couldn't so it without changing her character completely). She does not fit our ideal of a modern, independent woman. I think that all partially explains MP's lack of popularity today. If someone is going to make a film version of Mansfield Park today, they seem to feel that they have to change Fanny to make her acceptable for modern audiences. They feel they have to re-work Mansfield Park so that heroine and story fall in line with our modern sensibilities and secular worldview.

This is understandable. However, I will confess that it has been a source of some irritation to me in the past - this compulsion felt by modern film-makers to change Fanny.

All the above made me all the more appreciative of the willingness shown by the makers of MP83 to accept MP for the book that it is, and Fanny for the heroine that she is. If only film-makers today would be brave enough to do likewise. Honestly we're as bad as the Bertrams - we simply won't love and accept Fanny for who she is.

Fanny waiting. . .

The actress who played Fanny in MP83 seemed to understand Fanny's character. Her acting was perhaps less than remarkable at times, but at least her interpretation of Fanny's character was correct.

Most of the other actors were good. Jackie Smith-Wood as Mary Crawford, Bernard Hepton as Sir Thomas, Jonathan Stephens as Mr. Rushworth, and Samantha Bond as Maria Bertram were all good. Nicholas Farrell was excellent as Edmund. I do think that Blake Ritson from the more recent ITV Mansfield Park looked more like Edmund, but Farrell's acting was superior - he played the part better. (Or so I thought!)

But the actress who played Lady Bertram - ugh! She played the part as though Lady Bertram was a loony, or an alcoholic, or worse. . .I found her a bit annoying at times. Maybe she was trying to bring a bit of comic relief to this otherwise very serious production, but she only succeeded in being weird, not funny.

The other actor who I thought was seriously miscast was Robert Burbage as Henry Crawford. His acting was below par, and he wasn't nearly as charming or magnetic as Henry Crawford needs to be. This was a serious drag on the series. Crawford supplies much of the energy and momentum in Mansfield Park. Getting the right person playing the part was crucial, and here they failed.

My only other major complaint after viewing this series: the terrible, shocking, dreadful wigs! I can think of no adjective expressive enough to describe my horror of the wigs worn by those poor actors. Jackie Smith-Wood (Mary Crawford) was quite attractive, but her wig all but spoiled her appearance. The wig worn by the dude who played Mr. Yates was so bad, it was hilarious. Edmund's wig was also badly done.

Fanny riding

Other than that, I found MP83 to be a satisfying adaptation of one of my favourite books. The chemistry between the two leads was a little lacking, but performances from most of the other actors were quite good. The cinematography was  - well - hmmm. The sound engineering - ditto. But what do you expect from a low budget production made in  1983?  Really, it's not all that bad.

So, even with all my little quibbles, if I had to give this production a rating out of 10, it would be somewhere around 8. They stuck to the text of the novel, kudos to them for that. It's an earnest, faithful adaptation of a great book, and this shines through in spite of all its shortcomings.

In the end, if you've read the book, you'll appreciate this long, in-depth version of MP. If you haven't read the book - shame on you! Skip to it and read the book. Definitely read the book before you watch this or any other film or tv version of Mansfield Park.

Mary Crawford, Edmund, and Fanny eating dinner

Fun Trivia

Costume drama fans may spot a few familiar faces in MP83!

* Sylvestra le Touzel (Fanny Price), played Mrs. Allan in Andrew Davies' recent adaptation of Northanger Abbey. She also plays the part of Marianne Thornton in the movie Amazing Grace.

*Jonny Lee Miller (Charles Price, younger brother of Fanny) ended up being in two versions of Mansfield Park - he played Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park 1999.

* Samantha Bond (Maria Bertram) played Mrs. Weston in Emma 1996 (the Kate Beckinsale one).

* Bernard Hepton (Sir Thomas Bertram) played alongside Samantha Bond in Emma 1996. He played the part of Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's father.

Click here to watch Mansfield Park 1983 online.


D L Staude said...

I do not know this film, but another movie of "Mansfield Park" which I liked a lot. I guess, it had been done in the 90s. It is quite interesting, is it not? Well, you gave a great attention to this movie. I liked reading it a lot.

The Editrix said...

Yes, MP is a very interesting, thought-provoking story, which is one of the reasons why it's one of my favourite Austen novels. Glad you liked my little "review" of sorts. :)

Anonymous said...

Isn't it funny how the actor and actress playing Edmund and Fanny end up playing a married couple in "Amazing Grace?" My sibs and I noticed it and were like, "Hey, look! They play husband and wife decades later!"

Also, I thought Johnny Lee Miller plays the younger Edmund here, not Fanny's brother.

I agree with you that the main reason for non-Christians nowadays many times detesting MP is that it just isn't feminist enough for them, so I'm not surprised that they're always making Fanny some sort of "energetic a.k.a. not-the-real-Fanny-Price" character in more recent adaptations. '83 is still the best version, though not a film I'd watch very often.