In 1983 BBC once again took on Jane Austen, this time choosing her longest novel- Mansfield Park. Their adaptation, which was directed by by David Giles (who also directed Hetty Wainthrop) contains a cast of wonderfully lifelike characters, many of whom would go on to play other Austen rolls. The leads, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram, were played by Sylvestra Le Touzel (Vanity Fair) and Nicholas Farrell (Chariots of Fire, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet). Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram were portrayed by Angela Pleasence and Bernard Hepton (A&E’s Emma). Samantha Bond (A&E’s Emma, James Bond) played Maria Bertram-Rushworth. Perhaps the strangest Austen connection stems from the young actor who played Fanny Price’s younger brother, Charles. Sixteen years later, he would return to again act in a Mansfield Park adaptation, this time as Edmund. His name? Jonny Lee Miller.
Mansfield Park may be the hardest of any of Austen’s novels to film. Despite recent efforts, there has not yet been an entirely satisfactory filming of it. Part of this difficulty may arise from the heavy nature of the plot substance (immorality, seduction, adultery)- especially in light of the friendly atmospheres of Pride and Prejudice and Emma. Mansfield Park lacks their spunky, if slightly cheeky heroines. Fanny Price is very moral and kind, but not altogether exciting. In short, very much unlike anything Jane Austen had written before. While the 1999 version of Mansfield Park “improves” upon Fanny and adds to her character, this 1983 adaptation tries to remain faithful to the original. Perhaps they try too hard. Fanny ends up coming across as nervous and flighty. As one viewer put it: “If you can get past Le Touzel’s odd mannerism of making little chopping movements with her open-palmed hand for emphasis, this is a faithful adaptation of the novel.”
Farrell makes a pious and convincing Edmund. Robert Burbage, as Henry Crawford, is appropriately egotistical and licentious–if a bit rodent like. Julia is forgettable as is most of the Price clan. It is up to Angela Pleasence (an amazingly insipid Lady Bertram) and Jackie Smith-Wood, as the catty Mary Crawford to carry the cast. One fan commented: “The only memorable performance is by Jackie Smith-Wood. . . who brings out all her superficial charm, her shallowness, and, finally, her amorality. In this movie, she comes off as a much more sympathetic character than Fanny.”
Filmed on location in many of the great houses of England, this adaptation also uses a few studio shots which cut down on the lush atmosphere being presented. While one must remember this was filmed for television on a much smaller budget than we have grown accustomed to seeing, the action tends to be slower and more elaborate than you may be used to. Perhaps the words of one disillusioned viewer put it best: “This is a stylish, well-costumed, and soulless version of a great book.” Despite a good script (which delves deeper into the life of the Crawfords than its modern counterpart, and gives William Price his rightful place in Fanny’s life) and talent, this film flows along at a languid pace, even becoming a bit dull at times. Considering the new Miramax version, though, one may contend that this is a blessing. Better to err on the side of conservitivism than on that of sensationalism.
Worth special mention, and definitely the cost of the rental, are the hairstyles sported by the men in the film. One author of Jane Austen at the Movies stated that she was always distracted when Edmund came on screen. “By what?”, You ask? His “awful” hairstyle. I did not find it that unusual…especially in light of one which I think deserves the most attention. Watch for Robin Langford’s Mr. Yates. Only seeing is believing, in this case. A description would not be able to do it justice.
Produced by the BBC and made available in the USA by CBS/Fox, Mansfield Park runs for 261 minutes and is available as a two video set in both VHS and PAL format. Try Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.