The best scenes are William Price (Joseph Morgan) dancing a hornpipe and newlyweds Fanny (Billie Piper) and Edmund (Blake Ritson) waltzing on the lawn. In short, the film relies on comely actors, music, dance, Regency-inspired costumes and a beautiful set. If such inducements are enough to sustain you, gentle reader, then you will not be disappointed. Those of us with an affinity for Austen’s book expect more, but, unfortunately, this film was inspired by Barbara Cartland, not Jane Austen.
For instance, Billie Piper is a saucy wench. With bold eyes, unruly hair and full lips formed into a perpetual pout, Ms. Piper glares at the viewer from the plastic DVD case. Precariously stuffed into a straining corset and plunging neckline, one deep breath would expose her…. to ridicule, the sultry lass is both expensively and nakedly dressed. But, thus endowed and thus attired, why was Ms. Piper cast to play “creep mouse” Fanny Price, an extremely timid and rather prudish young woman destined to marry her cousin, the local clergyman? It was like casting Marilyn Monroe to play Mother Theresa, without allowing for a costume change. So who is this character who paces to and fro, races through the halls, gallops down the stairways and compulsively tosses her head in a futile attempt to get her hair out of her eyes? There is a certain appeal, a vulnerability, that is winning, but it is not Jane Austen’s Fanny Price.
And we all know Mrs. Norris would never allow such a wanton hussy to take up residence in Mansfield Park. After one defiant glance in her direction, Aunt Norris would have Billie Piper packed off to Portsmouth on the first stagecoach headed south. But Fanny never travels to Portsmouth in this version, and Fanny’s Aunt Norris (Maggie O”Neill) is largely and regrettably edited out, making possible the late night heart-to-hearts between Fanny and Edmund, in Fanny’s bedroom, in Fanny’s nightgown.
Granted, the novel Mansfield Park features women of easy virtue, the adulterous Maria Rushworth, the flirtatious Mary Crawford and Julia Bertram who bolts for Gretna Green at the earliest opportunity with the first man who asks her, but Jane Austen’s Fanny Price is made of sterner stuff and we are made to know it. The actresses who portray Maria (Michelle Ryan), Mary (Hayley Atwell) and Julia (Catherine Steadman) do very well with the little they are given, but there’s the rub. They are not given enough. Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) is another well cast victim. Sir Thomas (Douglas Hodge) and Lady Bertram (Jemma Redgrave) undergo personality changes as well. In every imaginable way, the complexity of the novel was ruthlessly sacrificed in order to condense the film down to a fairly simple boy meets girl plot, but the real betrayal of Jane Austen was in the sacrifice of the moral of the story.
Jane Austen’s Fanny Price is not yearning for adventure. She is longing for safety and security, for permanence, for a home at Mansfield Park. The reader sympathizes with Miss Price because Fanny is long suffering and downtrodden, not because she can barely be repressed. ITV’s Fanny Price wants romance, and she smolders with desire, the very impulses that are the ruin of Maria Rushworth in Austen’s novel. So the moral lesson of Austen’s book is discarded for simplicity: Love conquers all. Well, it is no doubt easier to compress into 90 minutes and requires so little of the viewer. Perhaps it is what many people want to see, but the ITV Mansfield Park is not a classic adaptation of a timeless English novel. It is a cheap paperback with the obligatory bodice ripping cover. Don’t expect anyone to be watching in 200 years.
Manfield Park was filmed at Newby Hall & Gardens, Ripon, North Yorkshire. The film was shown in March on ITV in Britain and is available on Region 2 DVD. In the US, PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre has announced “The Complete Jane Austen“, a four-month program beginning January 2008 showcasing adaptations for all six novels plus the new biopic Miss Austen Regrets..
Sheryl Craig is an Instructor of English at Central Missouri State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.