reviewed by Greta Christina
I have a new theory about movies based on Jane Austen novels. My theory is that, in order for them to work (or at least, in order for them to work for rabid Jane Austen fans like myself), they need to either (a) be rigorously faithful to the book they're based on, or (b) take vast, wild, leaping liberties with it. If a movie takes a middle ground, if it's more or less faithful to the book but makes some changes here and there to squeeze it in under two hours and dumb it down for the moviegoing public, then the whole "comparing it to the original and quibbling over the differences" game becomes an annoying distraction; like picking at a scab, you hate yourself for doing it but find it impossible to stop once you've started. A perfect example of the stringently-faithful type is the quiet, reflective, understated (and underappreciated) 1995 movie version of Persuasion; while the ragingly goofy, wildly entertaining, substantial-despite-itself Clueless, which I didn't even recognize as being based on a Jane Austen novel until it was pointed out to me, is an excellent example of the leaping-liberties variety.
As is Mansfield Park. When I heard that Mansfield Park was being made into a movie by lesbian feminist filmmaker Patricia Rozema who was giving it a contemporary twist, my first response was a sort of aggrieved curiosity. And once I was in the theater watching the thing, it definitely took me a while to get over my "Hey, that's not how it happened in the book" reaction and just let the movie be itself. Fortunately, M.P. is my least favorite Austen novel -- the heroine is an insipid, prissy, lifeless bore, and the preachy, purse-lipped tone isn't worthy of Austen's abilities -- so letting go of any lingering attachment to "how it really happened" was relatively easy. And even more fortunately, it's an excellent movie; compelling, clear-sighted and absorbing, with beauty and humor, and a refreshing realism that gives an uncommon perspective on both Austen's time and our own. You know the way most movies set in the past are either turgid, gothic melodramas or fluffy pastoral paradises where romantic anxiety is the worst problem anyone ever faces? Mansfield Park is neither. The world in Mansfield Park is just...well, the world, beautiful and unjust, frightening and funny, harsh and sweet, with restrictions that we rail against and restrictions that we don't even see.
The contemporary twist doesn't take the form of anachronisms and period inaccuracies. I'm not an expert, but the costumes and props and sets and such seem to have been lovingly and carefully researched, and the feel is very authentic. Instead, the modern angle takes the form of focus, of pointing the camera carefully and intently on aspects of the story and the period that Austen herself either glossed over or simply took for granted. Sexuality, for example. The movie looks unflinchingly at what exactly it meant for a married woman to run off with another man; where Austen sees scandal and gossip and the natural consequence of foolish choices, Rozema sees sex. And it brings out (gorgeously, I might add) the sensual side of friendships between women, honing in with a particular eye on the seductive nature of the friendship between an older, worldly-wise, libertine city woman and a younger, inexperienced country girl.
And slavery, for another example. Where the novel makes only passing references to the father's "business concerns in Antigua," the movie zooms in mercilessly on what exactly that business meant. And the moral unease of the people who disapprove of slavery and yet live comfortably off of its profits have a clear, unsettling correlation to the modern day.
I could go on and on. The movie's look at class, and capitalism, and the narrow options for women, all have a clarity of perspective that rings true for both the early 19th century and the late 20th. It's a perspective that historical purists and Austen fanatics may take offense at; but it's one that I found both enlightening and immensely enjoyable.
Copyright 1999 Greta Christina. Originally published in San Francisco Frontiers.