We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

The latest _Mansfield Park_: a 'natural' heroine? (Cont'd) · 4 April 07

Dear Harriet,

Thanks to Judy, I was able to watch the recent ITV Mansfield Park, and want to respond to Judy and Nick and the various commentaries by a separate letter. This to describe the film at greater length than comments usually do, and (perhaps) reach more readers.

The film has been unfairly treated. It’s not a great film, is perhaps fatally flawed, but in this it’s not all that much different from the other middle-range adaptations of Austen over the years. For example, the 1981 BBC Sense and Sensibility which had some very good moments too, but also flaws that made it a non-success. One sign of injustice is when those writing of a film say little beyond vague generalities indicating disapproval. The viewer-critics haven’t bothered to pay attention or think out the causes for their distaste, perhaps because the sources would embarrass them.

This is a competent adaptation which can add to one’s appreciation or understanding of the novel both by its successes and flaws. For example, as in Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park, the role of Tom (played by James D’Arcy) is made central. He’s not a drunken guilt-ridden dissolute filled with loathing for himself through his loathing for his father (as in Rozema’s), but is (more lightly) someone continually partying, someone who responds to a repressive parent by living a lie in front of him, and continually endangering himself by acting out the opposite of what his parent wants. As in Rozema’s film, Fanny (Billie Piper here) nurses Tom back to health; in this film she reads aloud to him and the texts chosen are intended to reinforce themes. A supposedly realistic scene has a doctor putting leeches on Tom’s chest to help him get better.

When you watch an adaptation you are entering into a process of
comparison as you go. That’s central to your pleasurable learning experience: see my On adaptations , a blog letter about Linda Hutcheon’s original Theory of Adaptation.

It’s important to think about things concretely so let me begin by
characterizing it as an ITV product directed by Iain MacDonald,
screenplay Maggie Wadey, starring Billie Piper, Douglas Hodge, Blake Ritson, James D’Arcy (Tom), Maggie O’Neill (Mrs Norris), Jemma Redgrave (Lady Bertram), Joseph Beatty (non-entity Henry), Hayley Atwell (Mary Crawford).

What did I like in it? Well I liked the angle they provided: it was to see the whole of the experience genuinely from the view of a young girl who is regarded as inferior and openly treated that way. From the opening shots to the close where Cinderella becomes the central princess of the tale this was the “take” on the novel fundamentally grasped. The opening shots of the lit forest through the eyes of a child in a carriage to the very end of the girl now dancing at the center of the family are all Fanny-rooted. Perhaps the reason the production so irritated people was an antipathy to stories where young girls are centrally important. It’s here too that the failure or central flaw of the production may be seen.

Billie Piper as Fanny is the issue here. The actors matter. She was (I suggest) chosen because she’s known to teenagers and she’s known because she has very odd looks. She’s no beauty, and in the US she’d have been given braces to alter her buck teeth. She has a forward unconventionally shaped face and is striking, memorable looking. All the actresses for the other young girl parts were interchangeable. Except for Hayley Atwell (Mary Crawford) I could hardly tell them apart. Billie Piper can do nervous, she can do fearful, she can be bright and alert and wary. But unlike Douglas Hodge (Sir Thomas) and Jemma Redgrave (Lady Bertram) she seems to me unable to convey depth of psychology. The production had a hole at its center. She was dressed differently from everyone else throughout (much more poorly), made to be an outcast physically by where she sat, what she was allowed to do, her room, how she was treated. Most of this through actions and not words.

The script insofar as I could get it first time round made a Fanny
somewhat in line with Austen’s. They altered her to be physically active (she does continually run at such a rapid rate up and down stairs, it’s a wonder she never fell), so she is an active horse-woman. Instead of having her fearfulness and anxiety part of her original nature, we were led to see this as her understandable reaction to how she is treated. She is not timid and is not really self-contained. Like Sylvestre Le Tousel (Fanny in the 1983 BBC MP), she was presented as silently somewhat angry and deeply in love with Edmund, but since she is not timid we see her lurking about watching people.

Austen’s Fanny is not a voyeur and Wadey’s Fanny is. The effect of watching her lurk in scenes watching others is peculiar. This suggests a character being twisted by environment. It’s a comment on our social values that a heroine who is a voyeur is deemed more acceptable than a heroine who is self-contained, deeply distressed (a depressive), meditative and intellectual. But then this film did present as a central theme how social mores pervert our better emotional and moral natures.

In speaking of the better performances I can of a central flaw. The production follows the hinge-points of the original book faithfully and gives us a happy ending. The problem here is the way the characters are imagined and the time given them to show their natures, produces a jarring unbelievable effect—rather likes what happened in the dramas of the period regularly and still today does.

The best performances in my view of psychological depth and interest were Douglas Hodge as Sir Thomas, Jemma Redgrave as Lady Bertram, Maggie O’Neill as Mrs Norris, and Blake Ritson as Edmund. Ritson’s performance and character was the finest as he was not suddenly wrenched into altering his nature at the end; the character was consistent and seen somewhat deeply throughout—even if the scenes went too fast and we were not given enough dialogue to really get into contact with him. He managed to carry an anti-society point of view. His religion was a matter of justifying a sort of retreat into solitude. There were a number of important lines asserting he and Fanny don’t care in the least about what others think and see social experience as warping and mostly violations of the inner self.

Hodge was a Sir Thomas much influenced by Rozema and Harold Pinter, but nowhere as drastically villainous, rather cold, dense, obtuse, non-caring for lower class people, rigid, and I think not enough shown as well-meaning until near the end when his daughter, Maria, ran away with Henry Crawford. He does open up for the first time in a scene walking in the wood trying to enable Maria to free herself of Rushworth, but after that nothing warm or decent or open, indeed he was a slightly gothic figure (Hodge seems to have modelled himself on gothic fathers in films) until near the end, and then sudden transformation to the point he is given a line which in the original book undermines and makes fun of marriage; here it’s made to celebrate marriage and love. Again as in the 1983 BBC and Rozema productions, you are made to see how central to the novel is Sir Thomas. Hodge is a fine actor who did Lydgate in the 1994 BBC Middlemarch and Sir Roger Carbury in the 2001 The Way We Live Now.

Jemma Redgrave was a lazy complicit Lady Bertram. She was presented as smart, utterly self-centered most of the time. You can read Lady Bertram as smarter than we realize, but in this production she is made to see Fanny loved Edmund all along and not be bothered by it. Her stance or presence suggested a woman worth knowing at times; alas, there was no time to know her much. She gives in to her husband because it’s most convenient not because she’s a slattern or neurotically afraid (as was Angela Pleasance in the 1983 MP) or in a drunken bored stupor (as in Rozema’s production). It didn’t quite make sense that at the end she should suddenly exert herself to help Fanny nab Edmund.

Mrs Norris was made much tamer but still fierce with narrow bigotry and resentment. Maggie O’Neill was believable but not forceful. She quietly (not before others) poisons Fanny’s mind by harassing her with cruel comments about her inferiority and tenuous position. It seems that nowadays no one much thinks such a woman can do harm so the role is shrunk and made less important than in Austen’s text. The powerful cold woman is a monster in modern movies, and the film-makers didn’t want a monster so Mrs Norris’s good impulses at the end (her pity for Maria) were emphasized at the end as she voluntarily leaves to succour poor Maria. A jarring note then occurred. Fanny and Edmund laugh at her. They are supposed to be serious, earnest, and moral. This shows them to be callow, frivolous, not really affected by the woman. Maggie O’Neill had presented a woman who was not powerful in herself, but not to be laughed at or dismissed. She is rightly known for her part in the British TV drama, Take Me Home.

As to the other actors I had trouble telling them apart. Henry and Mary Crawford were treated as in Rozema’s film (this is a film influenced by Rozema). Suddenly they intrude as a pair and are seen as a pair. Mary was made meaner than I have seen in her any of the productions and the concluding scene with Edmund really was strong—and brought home the dark view of Mary in Austen’s text. She is without integrity, a fully socialized creature—and that is ironic as society in this film is pretty bad, robbing people of honesty, decent feeling, making them use one another. I do think this theme of retirement from a corrupt world in Austen’s own text. London is a bad place where people become rotten, and the country and Mansfield a good place where they become better and happier people.

Joseph Beatty did what he could with Henry Crawford, but he was not as charismatic a presence as Alessandro Nivola. He wasn’t given the scenes Alessandro Nivola was in Rozema’s production; rather some of the dialogues were taken (I thought) from the 1983 production, and there Henry is amoral and wants to play with Fanny but not sexualized in the way intended here. I thought changing what he read aloud to Shakespeare was dumbing down the text—the film-makers maybe thought their audience would have read Midsummer Night’s Dream or seen it (from school?). It was meaningless; in context to read aloud the speeches from Henry VIII where the characters are destroyed by the king and an
indifferent society would have fit the film better.

Nick suggested an important theme in the film was an opposition of nature and artifice. He put it this way:

“She is a natural animal. That is the film’s dialectic. Natural,
physical, honest, rural is good; refined, mental, devious, urban is
bad. It may be more 18thC (Fielding?)than Austen; it also reflects a very deep feeling in current British society a revulsion with Blair and his polish, spin, deviousness.

All this is made very clear in the adaptation and I don’t understand how people missed it. I suppose because (and you have taught me so much about this especially from your discussion of the Pallisers) they are looking at a comparison with the text, not at the adaptation as a work in its’ own right.”

This coheres with the costumes and behavior and is found in the recent P&P. It makes society again an evil or a way of interacting with others that perverts people’s supposed better natures. The characters are dressed in outfits that emphasize their rural surroundings, and kept in isolation except when with crowds (and then it’s just noise) or when with upper class arrogant snobs (in this 2005/6 P&P, Miss Bingley is a nasty cock-teaser). This is Roussseau very much apres la lettre.

I saw a use of the gothic in the lighting (often dark shadows, the colors in minor key), and in the costumes. I wish I could produce a still of the actors doing the play. They looked like they were in a weird masquerade, slightly sinister. At one point suddenly Fanny is seen (later in the film) sitting by two ruined pillars in a grey marble place and Edmund comes to talk to her. The film-makers develop the dialogue Fanny and Edmund wanted to have but didn’t quite over star-gazing. In the novel such musing conversations occur between Fanny Price and Mary Crawford when the main Bertram children leave. Women’s friendships are then highlighted as in the book.

But there was not enough of such scenes, and this again shows us another problem with the production: they hinted at a purpose similar to Wadey’s NA: a psychoanalytical expressive way of projecting unhappiness and perversion through dream life, but it wasn’t followed up enough. There were simply not enough such scenes and they weren’t connected to the development of the main characters or story.

Which gets me to another fundamental problem with the production. The first was Billie Piper doesn’t convey inner life enough; the second was the sudden change at the story’s end. The third was not enough money and time were spent. This ITV production resembles most of the shortened adaptations which don’t have literal fidelity in view; indeed where the director and writer are aiming to depart in some central ways in order to produce a work of art (or commerce) that fits their needs and ideas. Some of the things I saw seemed to me the result of a tight budget and lack of time. The results of foreshortening are different from what one saw in the 1940 P&P (the first of this type) but they are analogous. Sotherton and Portsmouth were dropped.

These are serious losses. The Rozema film dropped Sotherton too to save time and money (the latter I surmize). The 1983 film develops the Sotherton sequence at length and we begin to understand the depths of the characters’ natures by what they do and say, and the episode anticipates what is to come beauitfully—as well as providing effective landscape and rooms. MacDonald and Wadey thought by having Fanny left behind when the family goes visiting, she would seem enough a poor relation, dependent, and if she doesn’t watch it at risk of being ejected, but much more happens at Portsmouth than that. Anyway why should she mind being left behind? This just spares her yet more snubbing. Sotherton is a brilliant episode which encapsulates the themes of the novel in fascinating theatrical ways and leads into the play; the two episodes belong together and are metaphoric mirror. Both Rozema and then MacDonald & Wadey apparently consider doing the play is enough. This was not so in this production partly because the play sequence didn’t go on for long enough, but then nothing did :).

Early on I got the feeling the actors hadn’t rehearsed enough. The
language had been changed so as to make it more modern and easier to understand. “I was made to feel my place” says Fanny. Still for about 1/4 of the way through the actors looked stiff and were having a hard time saying their lines (What a contrast to the 1979 P&P where words tripped off Elizabeth Garvie’s mouth as if they were utterly natural to her and yet they were Austen’s made very witty and sharp—also the other actors were as effective with the language.)

It seems to me from this production that ITV made the decision to
have a “Jane Austen season.” The name sells and they get prestige. They would not produce a single lavish many-episode film with high stars of expensive types. Instead they’d have 3 sets of directors and film-makers from their stable or who had done adaptations of Austen before. They’d limit each to a stringent budget. They’d make TV to last several weeks. The audience would want to join this imagined community. In the tape I had before and after a voice encouraged me to participate! Then each production was allowed to go its own way—as long as not too much money was spent.

These are some first thoughts about the film. I have gone on thus at length since there is a strong tendency among people to bad-mouth things and depreciate, and especially where the object discussed has no automatic prestige. This film is no different from many of the adaptations. It has good moments and flaws. I liked it and enjoyed watching more than when I thought about it later. The strength of films is the experience, and this one offered some of the same intensities of costume drama and family melodrama (romance) as the others. The landscape was filmed effectively, and some of the scenes between Fanny and Edmund and between the Bertram family and Fanny were well done. The older actors know how to make their presences felt.

I think the production is a modern one where a modern perspective is offered and would like to suggest this addition to Judy and Nick’s thoughts: the feel of the film is eventless. It’s not just there’s no ball (instead Fanny opts for a picnic for birthday—out in nature you see), and the parts move so swiftly; it’s that the production lacks climaxes, or the climaxes are swiftly passed by as just another moment in life and we go on for another.

As to feminism or any point of view about women as such, it’s
non-existent. The film presents Fanny as inferior because of her
class. (Fanny does have the line asking Sir Thomas about slavery and the discussion then meanders off in embarrassment and inconsequence the way many of the events in the film seem to do, modern life’s anomie) And the film-makers did take a hint from the 2006 P&P: Edmund congratulates Fanny upon becoming Mrs Bertram in the final scene. Ritson says the line with special emphasis and Fanny looks blissful. Ah, to be married, and to be a Mrs! Admittedly Billie Piper did not seem as deeply blissful as Keira Knightley. Still. Who would not take their husband’s name? What silly women wanted to keep their maiden names? And why? A great puzzle these strange perverse feminist people of 40 years ago now.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. From Nick:

    “I read your review of MP with great interest. I am delighted that you did not disagree with me and Judy that the production did not deserve the slatingit received here. Thinking about the three productions and their reception in the UK one is inexorably led to the conclusion that there is a very sloppy cultural elitism of the worse kind going on here.

    Andrew Davies makes a project heavyweight, worthwhile and respectable. Very little attention is paid to the actual project. This is not to knock Davies whom I rate highly, but much more as original dramatist: the brilliant A Very Particular Practice, or Mother Love, stand out in my memory. But it is to knock UK critics! :).

    Well I look forward very much to hearing what you think of NA and Persuasion. But you are absolutely right: there is no stylistic connection whatever between the three films. Actually I think the positives of this (different visions and sensibilities) outweigh the negatives; but I can see that for those used to lengthy adaptations of uniform tone it is unsettling.

    Sylvia    Apr 4, 10:54am    #
  2. I’m also pleased that you thought the film was worth watching and liked its angle – Cinderella seems right to me. I also agree that Blake Ritson was just right as Edmund – I think this is probably the performance which will stick in my mind from this version, as Alessandro Nivola and Lindsay Duncan stick in my mind from the Rozema film. The actor playing Henry in this movie had more of a subdued thuggish quality about him rather than Nivola’s dangerous charm, but I feel you’re right that he just didn’t have enough good scenes.

    Like Nick, I feel that UK critics have apparently ganged up on this production and dismissed it out of hand, but I’d also add that I think the way ITV presents its dramas adds to the problems of taking them seriously. This 93-minute film was made to fill 120 minutes of scheduling by packing it with advertisements, sponsorship and trailers – breaking it up into six segments, some not much more than ten minutes long. For anybody who watched it “live”, it would have been impossible to keep the period atmosphere through all the interruptions! I think the movies do come across much better when watched without all this distracting material.
    Judy    Apr 4, 5:53pm    #

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