Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Janespotting: Mansfield Park (1983 miniseries)

I wasn't sure I was going to be able to get my hands on this earliest adaptation of Mansfield Park, but I decided to give Netflix a try and see how many of these oldies I could get within the one-month trial membership. This BBC production is an extremely faithful version of Austen's novel, told over six one-hour episodes. With early 1980s production values, however, might not necessarily be a good thing.

The plot certainly didn't veer far from the original novel. We see Fanny introduced to Mansfield Park, her growing friendship with Edmund, and the changes wrought by the arrival of the Crawfords. All the little amusing details are there, including how Aunt Norris initiated Fanny's arrival but claimed she never intended to raise her herself; the ridiculousness of Maria's fiance Mr. Rushworth (and his 42 speeches); Fanny's return to Portsmouth and how she makes things quieter by buying her younger sister a pair of silver scissors. Unfortunately, all the tedious and boring details are there as well, but without the benefit of footnotes to explain for the viewer. Honestly, you'd think that the screenwriter transposing the scene where the young people discuss which parts they should portray in the drama Lover's Vow might intersperse one line here or there so that we understand what it means for Maria and Julia to battle over playing Agatha. There's nothing, though, so the five-minute discussion of a play few modern viewers know is tedious beyond belief. There are similar slow spots, not helped at all by the era's avoidance of musical scoring except in transitions.

Still, the scenery and costumes were fine, and the acting was uniformly good. I recognized few of the actors, most of whom have gone on to long careers in British television and film. (The one exception: the actress playing Maria Bertram, Samantha Bond, played Miss Moneypenny in the various Pierce Brosnan-starring James Bond films.) The actress playing Fanny, Sylvestra Le Touzel, might have been made up a little more plainly than I would have liked (Sir Thomas remarks on his return she is uncommonly improved), but she captured Fanny's quiet steadfastness. The actress playing Lady Bertram was a hoot, and the actor playing Edward was pleasant enough.

My main dissatisfaction with this version, aside from the slow spots, was in the romantic conclusion of the film. There it had to vary from the original, for as I wrote in my review, Austen shows nothing of Fanny and Edmund's declaration of their love for each other. She merely says that "he was very steadily earnest in the pursuit of the blessing [of her hand in marriage], and it was not possible that encouragement from her should be long wanting." Given that setup, why not show Edmund being steadily earnest, or Fanny "receiving the assurance of that affection of which she [had] scarcely allowed herself to entertain a hope." Nope. In a major change from the book, where Fanny and Edmund witness Mary Crawford's shocking nonchalance towards Maria's affair firsthand, Edmund instead tells Fanny of Mary's faulty moral understanding and tells her he is glad she is there to listen. Fanny replies that she shall always be there, and that's that. No declaration of feelings. No proposal. No fun!

So overall, a pleasant-enough version of the story, and a good object lesson on why it's sometimes good to deviate from the novel to write your script. This will not be the case for the next version I'll be reviewing, but you'll see more on that later.

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