As a Jane Austen fan, I’m always interested in the film versions of her books. I’ve loved some (the TV-series of Pride and Prejudice; the movie version of Sense and Sensibility written by Emma Thompson; and the TV-version of Persuasion; all three from 1995) and disliked others (the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice; the 1999 movie version of Mansfield Park). What I like best are the scripts that are as true to the book as they can be despite the fact that they have had to condense characters and trim the plot. Of all of Austen’s books, Mansfield Park is probably the hardest for a modern audience to relate to because so much of the plot hinges on a moral system we cannot understand. The 2007 TV-version of the book finds a good middle ground, staying true to the book while making the characters and situations appealing to the modern viewer.
As a young girl, Fanny Price, poor cousin to the Bertrams, is taken into their home out of charity to Lady Bertram’s sister, who is saddled with a large family and little income. As an adult, Fanny (Billie Piper) is both proper and sensitive. She feels the harsh words her unthinking uncle and aunts speak and tries hard to be as inoffensive as possible. She has to watch as her beloved cousin Edmund (Blake Ritson) pursues Mary Crenshaw (Hayley Atwell), a woman determined to marry the eldest son for his money, but who finds herself attracted to Edmund instead. Mary’s brother Henry (Joseph Beattie) is cut of the same cloth and woos both Maria and Julia Bertram, even though Maria is already engaged.
When her uncle is away, Fanny’s cousins, with the help of the Crenshaws, plan to put on a play about lovers, and Fanny knows that Sir Thomas will disapprove. The assumption that play-acting is immoral is the biggest pitfall in portraying Mansfield Park to a modern audience. The impropriety of performing the play is central to the plot, as it gives several characters a chance to be intimate with one another in a way their society would not normally allow. But, two hundred years later, acting has lost the social stigma it had in the 1800s, and Sir Thomas comes across as a tyrant to a modern audience. By emphasizing the use both Mary and Henry make of the situation, Iain B. MacDonald’s version gives us at least a hint of why the society of the time disapproved.
What I love about this version is the portrayal of Fanny. In the book, she is incredibly reserved and proper as a result of her low status in the family, but the movie allows her to be young and lively life as well. She is shown running through the house at moments of great joy, and at one point, she enthusiastically plays hide-and-seek with a young girl. She is also wise, seeing through the pretenses of Mary’s brother, Henry, and refusing to marry him, despite the favors he does her and her uncle’s anger at “her selfishness”. The relationship between Edmund and Fanny is key to the story, and both Piper and Ritson make us well aware of the characters’ feelings for one another even when the characters themselves do not speak.
The movie was shot entirely at Newby Hall in Yorkshire and has a lovely look as a result. I found the production like Fanny – charming and straightforward – and I was impressed by the decision not to try to modernize Fanny or the story (as was done in the 1999 Mansfield Park). To keep the film at 90 minutes, many scenes from the book were removed or reduced, but not with severe cost. I would love to see what this crew would have done with the movie if they had been allowed more time and a broader scope of locations.