Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Janespotting: Mansfield Park (2007 TV film)

So after a dull, overly faithful miniseries and a wild, horribly adapted feature film, how would PBS's recent "Masterpiece" adaptation of Mansfield Park perform? I was intrigued when I saw that it featured Billie Piper as Fanny Price, and not necessarily in a good way: I first knew of her as a manufactured teenybopper singer who was popular while we were living in London from 1998-2002; later, however, she did a great job as Companion Rose Tyler in the new Doctor Who's early seasons, although since the character had a broad working-class London accent I wondered how well she would portray a lady of the early 19th century. I also wondered how the film would condense the novel into a mere 90 minutes.

Turns out, pretty well. The film got straight to the point, having Fanny narrate the story of how she arrived at Mansfield Park (and fell in love with Edmund) during the first 2 minutes of opening credits. By 6 minutes in we were introduced to the Crawfords, and by 15 minutes in we were in the midst of the play. The first half hour wasn't even over and Maria was married and sent away on her honeymoon with Julia. While this might seem overly speedy, the first half hour hits all the essential points: Fanny is underappreciated, Edmund is her friend, Maria is a flirt, the Crawfords are intriguing, the play is naughty. (And this version, unlike the miniseries at 3½ times the length, took a few seconds to explain exactly why.)

As a reward for this rushed setup, we get a half hour devoted to Henry Crawford's pursuit of Fanny (including a picnic in place of the ball), and her steadfast refusals. In a major change from the original novel, this film doesn't send Fanny back to her family in Portsmouth; instead, she is left alone at Mansfield while the Bertrams and Mrs. Norris visit a distant relative. I've read some reviewers cavil about this change, claiming that it doesn't give Fanny a chance to consider how her refusal of Crawford may consign her to a life of relative poverty. But I think that's a minor quibble; the whole point of Fanny's character is not that she is swayed by financial concerns—the trip to Portsmouth doesn't change her mind, after all—but that she has come to consider Mansfield Park her home and its inhabitants her real family. Absenting everyone from the Park serves that purpose just as well, and it saves the time (and expense) of introducing a new setting and characters.

So if we have half an hour for the initial setup and half an hour for Crawford's pursuit, what's in the last half hour? As it turns out, a really nice romantic payoff. Tom is returned home in dire straits, the rest of the family becomes appreciative of Fanny, Mary Crawford makes a crass remark about Edmund inheriting, Maria runs away with Henry, and then we get 15 wonderfully romantic minutes of Edmund realizing he is in love with Fanny and finally declaring himself. Edmund, being a bit more shy than the average Austen hero, needs a little nudge to assist him; in this case it is supplied by Lady Bertram, who encourages them to spend a little time alone together, walking the Park grounds. (Jemma Redgrave—yes, one of those Redgraves, Colin's daughter—presents Lady Bertram as somewhat on the ball, a welcome change from the usual ditzy portrayals.) Words of love are exchanged, a wedding ensues; finally, a filmmaker who takes advantage of Austen's reticence to give us something that approaches a classic Austenish romantic denouement.

That's not to say there weren't some flaws; it did skim a lot of the events in the novel (no trip to Sotherton, no trip to Portsmouth) and gave short shrift to Mrs. Norris, one of Austen's nastiest villains. Fanny Price was styled like a country girl, with her hair loose, which wouldn't have been proper for the time period even if she was a poor relation. However, the cast was uniformly excellent: Blake Ritson (later to play Mr. Elton in the 2009 Emma) made an appropriately reticent Edmund; Michelle Ryan (star of the brief Bionic Woman remake) is the first Maria I've seen who really looked as well as acted the part of a sexy flirt; and Hailey Atwell is the best Mary Crawford I've seen yet, at first charming and flirtatious with just a hint of unsavory character, later gradually revealed. And Billie Piper? Although she may be a little too beautiful to play Fanny Price, even with the country styling making her more unfashionable than her cousins, she hit the right notes of steadfastness and shyness, and successfully allowed us to see Fanny's inner turmoil. All in all, although purists might quibble, I found this a good film adaptation that got to the heart of the story despite its shorter length. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for a decent historical romance.

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