Friday, June 9, 2017

TV Movie Review - Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park
Based on the book by Jane Austen
Release Date: March 18th, 2007
Starring: Douglas Hodge, Jemma Redgrave, Maggie O'Neill, Julia Joyce, Zachary Elliott-Hatton, Greg Sheffield, Tara Berwin, Lucy Hurst, Billie Piper, James D'Arcy, Blake Ritson, Michelle Ryan, Rory Kinnear, Catherine Steadman, Joseph Morgan, Hayley Atwell, Joseph Beattie, and Dexter Fletcher
Rating: ★★★
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Fanny Price has been sent away from home to live with wealthy relatives because her mother can no longer afford to keep her. She is scared and intimidated and only her cousin Edmund takes the time to make her feel safe and loved. As she grows up that love becomes stronger which is fortunate as it's about to be tested. Her uncle leaves to attend business in Antigua and the young people take over the house. Fanny's cousin Tom has had his fun spoiled and decides to mount a play at Mansfield Park. His sisters, Maria and Julia will obviously perform, as will Maria's fiance Mr. Rushworth. The party is greater increased by two new neighbors, the siblings Henry and Mary Crawford. Yet Edmund and Fanny will not perform. It's not seemly for a variety of reasons but especially given that the play is rather risque. Though Edmund's growing attraction for Mary makes him foolish and he eventually agrees to perform under duress. Julia soon bows out on seeing that her engaged sister is flirting with Henry. And Fanny is roped into the production to replace Julia which is brought to a crashing halt by the return of her uncle. With Sir Thomas Bertram returned the hope is life will return to normal at Mansfield Park, but little do they know that isn't the case. The arrival of the Crawfords has changed everything. When Maria still goes through with her marriage to Mr. Rushworth Henry Crawford sets his sights on Fanny. He wants to make a little hole in her heart. Yet her heart is protected at least from Henry because it already belongs to Edmund, but the pain she feels on seeing Edmund fall for Mary is excruciating. Will Fanny lose the love of her life or will tragedy lead to a happy ending?

While this adaptation is a hectic haphazard headlong rush at translating Mansfield Park for the small screen the number one thing in it's favor is that it is nothing like the horror show that was the 1999 Frances O'Connor version. I still shudder thinking of that adaptation. In this version instead of augmenting Fanny with her creator, Jane Austen, the production went in a different direction and decided that instead of letting Fanny stand on her own they'd fix all supposed defects by making her more of a Lizzy Bennet and less of a Fanny Price. But the thing is I love Fanny for being Fanny and I love Lizzy for being Lizzy. They are characters that are both loved for being themselves. The Fanny embodied by Billie Piper feels like she's spent a little too much time around The Doctor. All she does is run. Everywhere. Fanny is playing shuttle cocks with Edmund. Fanny is playing hide and seek at Maria's wedding with some unknown child. Fanny is chasing Pug through the halls of Mansfield Park, which I'm sure her Aunt Bertram wouldn't approve of. All the while she's laughing and giggling. This isn't right. Fanny is a slight sickly girl who is retiring. She can't physically take much exercise except by horse. When I first saw this adaptation I would have said it was because Billie Piper perhaps had a more limited acting range, but seriously, have you seen Penny Dreadful? Because this is all on the writer and director and not on Billie. Plus by having Mary use Fanny's horse it doesn't have the betrayal and weight that it has in the book. Fanny was just put-out, it wasn't like her horse was her only form of exercise and this slight was the first sign of Edmund's infatuation with Mary which would pain Fanny so deeply. 

But enough can not be said for the relief I feel in how this adaptation purposefully stepped away from the 1999 adaptation. This can be clearly seen when Henry and Edmund try to discuss the atrocities happening in Antigua and Edmund's mother just waves away any discussion of slavery with an oblivious line about the heat in the West Indies. To those not familiar with the earlier adaptation, which reveled in horrors and viewers had to endure Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas Betram raping his slaves, this line of Aunt Bertram might be a throwaway, but to those who know, it's a time to take a great sigh of relief. This is going to be Austen, not some social commentary on race, but social commentary on a confined society in a country house. And while I feel that of all Austen's novels Mansfield Park is the most confined to location and characters this adaptation takes it further. This is television, this is low budget, this is a small cast. They really weren't taking any risks with this adaptation. And while yes, I do think things could have been done differently, you can see why they did it this way. Mansfield Park is a tricky book to adapt and going for a smaller more intimate scale, while in keeping with the book, also made for an Austen adaptation that someone who didn't love the book could enjoy. The costumes might have felt a little dated and the fact that they never left the property might be perplexing to those who expect their period dramas to have multiple locations and lush sets, but I say so what? Smaller definitely worked better than bigger. Yes, it wasn't perfect, but Andrew Davies has yet to adapt Mansfield Park...

Yet I can not give this adaptation two thumbs up because of my love of Austen's book. The problem here is that while it still feels like Austen, which the 1999 version didn't achieve, there is still a diminishment of the story. It has been made smaller, lesser than. As I've previously stated, Fanny wasn't Fanny, but the greater truth is that none of the characters feel right. They are all slightly wrong. It's like when I tried to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the author had the gall to not use Austen's own words, which thankfully the movie adaptation rectified. Therefore having the lines be not quite Austen's here made me feel the same bafflement when I tried to read that atrociously written parody. As Andrew Davies has said, Austen is perfect, just cut and paste. Take liberties when Austen purposefully steps back. She never goes into great details about the proposals or the happily ever afters, so here you can have free reign, and in fact in those moments of this adaptation, that's when I felt it. That deep pain in my veins that this is true love, that these emotions on screen have triggered a physical response in me. Have taken me away to a place where tears of happiness aren't far behind. While in other parts I actually found myself cheering when an actual line from the book remained intact. And let's face it, while all Austen's lines are memorable, Mansfield Park has a large share of them. So why weren't more used? Also why was Fanny in the play? There is NO way she would have been in the play. IF you have to change things to make it work in the time and format allotted why can't you at least keep the little details intact, like the theatre curtains being green not red? Because the more little things you change the more acceptable you think it to change the words of one of the greatest authors who ever lived.    

I'm not naive, I know that a lot of the culling, a lot of the diminishment of character is for the speed of the storytelling because even as a lover of Mansfield Park I can say that it's languid pace is almost stultifying, therefore it makes a good read to calm down before bed. But the downside to this dovetailing is that there is a diminishment of character in an attempt to make them better suited to the allotted time. In particular with regard to Edmund. Blake Ritson's lines have been almost completely excised because no one wants a preachy hero and Edmund really is full of himself. This means that all Blake is left with is languid gazes and pained expressions with a really horrid haircut. Mansfield Park is the first thing I remember seeing Blake in and I instantly formed an entirely erroneous opinion of him as an actor. I basically had him down as a pretty boy with no acting chops. This is so far from the truth that I urge you to seek out his other work to see his range. He's just so amazingly talented and here he's just wasted. I think he excels in bad boy roles personally, but if you're interested in sticking with Austen adaptations watch his Mr. Elton in the 2009 adaptation of Emma, which almost makes you completely forget the genius of Alan Cumming in the 1996 version. Dueling Mr. Es! My personal favorite though is his portrayal of the Duke of Kent in the reboot of Upstairs Downstairs, even if the conflicted baddie Riario in Da Vinci's Demons is melodramatic fun at it's most camp. But Blake isn't alone in this category of wonderful actors underutilized, this could be said for much of this perfectly cast adaptation. This also shows that a perfect cast can not cure defects in directing and adapting. 

But oddly enough the thing that annoyed me the most was Mr. Rushworth. If you don't know I kind of hate Rory Kinnear. This is a problematic hatred because he's literally in everything. Every once in awhile he surprises me into liking him, Penny Dreadful, The Imitation Game were good roles for him, but then along comes Women in Love and Vexed and I hate him all over again. So you'd think my hatred of Rory Kinnear would be why I was annoyed with Mr. Rushworth, yet oddly it's not. What annoys me about Mr. Rushworth is the changing of his timeline with the family. Because the changing of the timeline would have inevitably changed the outcome of events. It's freaking butterfly chaos theory time people and this wasn't taken into consideration at all in this adaptation. In the book Mrs. Norris makes the connection between Mr. Rushworth and Maria while Sir Thomas is in Antigua. It's a feather in her hat and all that. Here when Sir Thomas announces he must leave for Antigua Mr. Rushworth is already of the family party and is instructed to hold the wedding til his return from his amazingly fast and I think actually geographically impossible trip to Antigua in the time allotted. Um no. That's about it. No. Let's look at the reasons for all this "no" coming from me. The whole point of Rushworth is to show the detrimental interference of Mrs. Norris but also to show Sir Thomas's lack of fatherly concern because he quickly realized the defects in Rushworth and KNEW it wasn't going to work for Maria and even implored her to change her mind if she so wanted. But if Sir Thomas had been there since the couple did get coupled he would have stopped it before it had ever started. Then Maria would have met Henry Crawford in time and they could have gotten married and then that would have been the end of that. People sometimes just don't think that what might be one little change for expediency actual has ramifications that destroy the plot going forward. I think Austen knew what she was doing and should never be second guessed.    


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