Saturday, August 1, 2020

Reviewing Jane: Every Moment Has Its Pleasures And Its Hope

Year: 2007
Director: Iain B. MacDonald
Cast: Billie Piper, Blake Ritson, Hayley Atwell
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

Mansfield Park is my least favorite Jane Austen novel because it has the least dynamic heroine and the most outdate social mores (the drama of an entire colume hinges on the performance of a mildly licentious play), so I can't say I was particularly excited to sit through my second helping after the supremely boring 1999 adaptation. And seeing how the TV adaptations (usually for BBC or Masterpiece or both) as a rule tend to be worse than the theatrical efforts, so how could this have possibly gone right?

Well, casting someone I'm aware of certainly helps. Hey, it's that lady from the one season of Doctor Who that I watched!

In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price (Billie Piper) is a poor young woman who has been raised in the titular country mansion with her rich relatives the Bertrams. Over the course of the past eight years or so she has fallen helplessly in love with her cousin Edmund (Blake Ritson), and we're actually meant to root for them to end up together, so that's another fun thing about 1800's literature. The Bertams' lives are turned upside down with the arrival of siblings Henry (Joseph Beattie) and Mary Crawford (Hayley Atwell), a lothario and a gold digger respectively.

While the Bertram sisters Maria (Michelle Ryan) and Julia (Catherine Steadman) battle it out over Henry despite Maria already being engaged, Edmund seems to be falling for Mary, much to Fanny's chagrin. She spends the entire summer being constantly reminded of her low place in the social hierarchy, subject to the ever-changing whims and vices of the rich folks around her.

And those vices include more than just saucy plays, let me tell you what.

So given everything Mansfield Park had going against it, imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the most entertaining iteration of the story, including the novel itself. I wouldn't dare to suggest it was better than the Austen text, but it's certainly more popcorny and delightful. Everything in the movie is something that can be found in the novel, so it's not exactly reinventing the wheel, but it arranges those elements in a way that's immensely satisfying. It draws out the emotional and humorous flavors of the story while cutting away all the fat that makes the book a bit of a dry read. 

They do fiddle with the character of Fanny a bit (which is necessary to sell her to a modern audience), giving her a bit more inner fire and rebelliousness that makes certain scenes gel poorly, but let's face facts that it would be extremely boring to watch her sit in corners and patiently observe the other characters like she does in the novel. And I adore that the film's approach seems to be "what I did over my horny summer vacation" (the eye fucking in this movie, and at one point thumb-touch fucking, is off the charts).

Also, apropos of nothing, no Jane Austen leading man has had more Hot Topic-looking bangs, thank you 2007.

The clarity of the narrative also allowed me to emotionally invest in the characters in a way I never had before, even if the performances aren't necessarily something to write home about. Hayley Atwell provides a terrific, snippy antagonist and Billie Piper is game for the material, even if she does seem constantly on the verge of tears. But aside from them, nobody rises above or sinks below "adequate," though Joseph Beattie could have helped make some of his scenes a little less muddled if he leaned more into mustache-twirling villainy.

And I should hope by now that I've explained my theory about the importance of the dance scenes to any Jane Austen adaptation. Mansfield Park's ball is no exception. Their line dancing is sometimes stilted and occasionally makes them look downright maniacal, but the filmmakers take advantage of the whirl of motion to catch us up on the dynamics between the characters, with Fanny coming in between but failing to divert the connection between Mary and Edmund. There's also an excellent closing dance at Fanny's wedding that visually highlights the way she finally feels like she belongs to the world of the Bertram rather than merely observing it from the sidelines unable to truly take part in it. 

I still hold out hope that the same year's Persuasion starring Sally Hawkins will be my favorite of the TV adaptations because it stars Sally Hawkins who I love, but I certainly can't complain about the effervescent treat I was given in Mansfield Park. Much like Fanny Price herself, this outing proves that greatness truly can come from anywhere regardless of fortune (or budget).

TL;DR: Mansfield Park is a surprisingly fun romp through the hornier side of Jane Austen's novels.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 815
Other Films Based on Mansfield Park
Mansfield Park (Rozema, 1999)
Mansfield Park (MacDonald, 2007)

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