It is a truth universally acknowledged by Jane Austen aficionados, that film adaptations very rarely do her work justice. It is also a fact that the rabbit hole of Jane Austen movies is often an unpleasant journey. Acknowledging both these truths, I am happy to announce that Mansfield Park 1999 contradicts them.
I will set the record straight for book purists from the onset; this film is not faithful to the source material. If you’re one of the few readers who actually liked Mansfield Park, then this isn’t the Netflix pick for you. In fact, the ladies spearheading the movie, both on and off screen, ensure that it is nothing like the book. Interestingly, rare as it is for Jane Austen movies, I’d argue that the film is more enjoyable than the book.
(Spoiler alert; for the book and the movie)
Mansfield Park; A Synopsis
Fanny Price is sent away to live with her wealthier relatives, the Bertrams at Mansfield Park. Fanny grows up with the Bertram children, and grows increasingly fond of the youngest son, Edmund (read; love). But, it is clear that there are a ton of norms dictating her position in society. And simply marrying who she likes is not in keeping with decorum.
The 1999 film adaptation keeps this base structure, and adds a ton of flourishes. Here is the trailer.
And now, let there be commentary.
Jane Austen Movies And Closeted Skeletons
It baffles me when someone on Instagram announces that they don’t like Jane Austen, because they find her writing ‘silly’. Or even more regularly, that they find her ‘too feminine’.
Yes, because how dare a woman write about women?
Such criticism seems to have a very limited understanding of her satirical traversing of the world she inhabited. When you read Thomas Piketty, for example, he examines Jane Austen by way of the economy she comments on. In particular, the landed aristocrats, who are personified in works like Pride and Prejudice.
There is a lot of talk about how Jane Austen movies, or movies based on Jane Austen books, hold up. A ton of comparisons, some of which have been my introduction to many film adaptations. Interestingly though, for the most part, these discussions veer away from the political implications of Jane Austen movies. Which is why I appreciate this adaptation of Mansfield Park. No, it isn’t faithful to the book. Instead, this idyllic film merges feminist critique with genuinely poignant post-colonial commentary.
Mansfield Park 1999
I remember having a copy of Mansfield Park, as I manoeuvred through my Jane Austen phase. And no, that phase hasn’t ended yet. I also remember reading the book, and not linking it very much. But, I cannot remember if I finished the book first. At any rate, when I watched the 1999 film version, my slate was relatively blank.
I was vaguely aware that this version merged the protagonist, Fanny Price, with the real life Austen’s character. What I didn’t fully anticipate was just how many other liberties the film took.
Arguably, even the original Mansfield Park is poignant in its own right. It isn’t necessarily as entertaining an Austen read as some of her other works. But, assessing the layers of the simple story of a poor protagonist and her wealthier relations, exposes its nuances. Mansfield Park is as much about class divide, and society sanctioned gender roles, as it is about fainting fits.
This video by Ron Lit, for instance, highlights its many philosophical touch points.
The Best Kept Secret
However, the book is not willing to delve too deep into the political economy shrouding many of its characters. In particular, it is revealed that Sir Thomas owns plantations and thus slaves, but the subject is barely touched on. Which in fact points to a common thread amongst adaptations. It is often disconcerting to watch a modern rendition of English classics, that paint over the colonial history. This version does exactly the opposite of that. In Mansfield Park 1999, colonisation and institutionalised slavery are not after thoughts.
Rather, writer and director Patricia Rozema ensures that the narrative is forever underscored by the brutal and brutalising history. This is not always without its problems. In particular, the film draws parallels between Fanny’s position and that of enslaved plantation workers. At one point Fanny literally quips, “a woman’s poverty is a slavery even more harsh than a man’s.” There has been a tendency amongst many, to equate gender inequalities with racism. Such efforts completely overlook intersectionality, in particular as it relates to institutionalised slavery. But, I feel that as more nuanced conversations become commonplace, sensitive filmmakers will attempt to better understand these complexities.
And in spite of these problems, the film is also brimming with powerful scenes that contextualise Austen for modern audiences. Regency period films are often so very serene that we forget just what that time period looked like. This film ensures that you remember. The climax of the film is also the most blatant comment on the legacy of British colonial rule.
Scars Coming Out To Play
Throughout the film, Tom, the eldest son is dismissed by characters for being a recluse. His alcoholism, and inability to follow his father’s orders are shunned. But, after he is taken ill, Fanny discovers his sketchbook. It is filled with some of the most disturbing imagery you’ll see in an Austen adaptation. And, some of the worst realities of colonisation.
Suddenly, Tom’s actions seem not just understandable, but even inevitable. Like the audience, he seems to always have been aware of what the realities underpinning this idyllic life are. Earlier in the film, Tom remarks about a gathering at Mansfield, “Ah Antigua. And all the lovely people there paying for this party.”
Did he mean Sir Thomas? Who pays for life at Mansfield Park because of his plantations. Or, is he referring to the burden of White wealth? Which routinely fell on non-White plantation workers. Especially enslaved Black people. That this film attempts to ask such questions is a testament to its quality.
No conversation about an Austen story is complete without focusing on the heroine. And this, arguably, is where the original Mansfield Park draws the shortest straw. Fanny in the book is a bit of a wimp. No, that’s not a judgement (well, maybe it is). But, this is also the consensus regarding the character. Consider this video by Ron Lit.
Hence, I suppose that Mansfield Park 1999’s greatest strength is that it fuses Fanny with Austen herself. In the book, Fanny is polite, and faints. In the movie, Fanny is spirited, and writes. She is literally introduced as a storyteller, as she fills her younger sister’s heads with fantastical tales. At one point, the film even accredits Fanny with early works that Jane Austen wrote.
Understandably, book purists were a bit perturbed by this. But as Roger Ebert explained in his review, “anyone who thinks it is not faithful to Austen doesn’t know the author. But only her plots.” You see, Mansfield Park 1999 is not about Jane Austen’s oft overlooked novel, but rather about Austen herself. And moreover, about women authors, and women’s authors.
Roger Ebert pointed out how radical it was for Fanny to be presented as a writer. Because while women’s literature is celebrated, it is not always fostered. Fanny’s writing thus becomes more powerful. In a way, Patricia Rozema wanted to nurture her leading lady’s intelligence. Which is something that Regency era England wasn’t very keen to do.
A Room And The View
In A Room Of One’s Own, Virginia Wolf noted that Jane Austen probably never had a room to herself. That her greatest works were probably conceived without any privacy. But while Austen might not have had the privacy to write, this Fanny Price does.
Some of the film’s most charming moments depict Fanny writing in her own room. Her privacy is charged by the keen intellect of a writer. The very intellect that Edmund admires throughout the film.
That Rozema opted to give Fanny a room of her own in this way, says a lot about filmmaker intent. And in doing this, she gives us the kind of spirited young protagonist that we can all cherish. Someone who retains Fanny’s kindness. But, who is also intelligent enough to understand bigotry, and gutsy enough to call it out.
Jane Austen Movies In the New Normal
You guys have heard me go on, and on about the new normal, and how things are changing. So, I won’t bore you with such sentiments again. Instead, I’ll just say that I’ve recently developed a different way of looking at things. Jane Austen adaptations are not exempt from this.
When we are having conversations about systemic bigotry, how can we ignore the past? Moreover, how can we be content with works that skim over entire episodes of our collective history? And how can we not appreciate films that opt against polite ignorance? Mansfield Park 1999, for its many flaws, holds up because it doesn’t hold back. I realise that this is probably also why it isn’t topping a list of Jane Austen favourites.
But, seeing that the film is available on Netflix, I’d really encourage you to watch it. It is a charming, funny and yet thought provoking adaptation. And, I think it actually improves on the original.