Mansfield Park - rated - SIMMERING

No Merchant/ Ivory treatment here

Director Patricia Rozema, the Canadian feminist director of I Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) and When Night is Falling (1995) has attempted something different with this film. It is not your stereotypical Merchant Ivory treatment of a hallowed nineteenth century novel. It is not a BBC adaptation - although the closest thing to it, because of its "modernity," is the BBC's TV mini-series of Vanity Fair (Mark Mundon, 1998). It is not even an Emma Thompson/ Ang Lee triumph. It is something new, in more ways than one.

First: the story. Rozema has adapted the story of Mansfield Park but interpolated material from Jane Austen's diaries and other writings. This results in a few changes of emphasis as well as plot. For example, our heroine Fanny Price (Australia's Frances O'Connor) is much more of a positive figure of action than a mere passive commentator. The Bertram family's Estates in the West Indies (referred to only in passing in the novel) now play a much more central role in the plot and in the film's political themes. And Fanny's sister Susan (Sophia Myles) in the film should really be a brother.

The other major change Rozema makes is a change of style. Although there are plenty of Opulent costumes and furnishings, Mansfield Park is actually mostly in ruins. There are bare walls, and sparsely furnished rooms, so that we realise at al times that we are not in a fantasy world of cardboard cut-out "historical characters, but in a real world of red-blooded people. That's another thing Rozema has done which Jane Austen fans may not appreciate very much - she shows the sex which people spend so much time skirting around. And when you see it you think - yes, well they must have been doing it, even in Jane Austen!

Bringing Fanny to the foreground enables Rozema to examine more acutely the social conventions which so restricted the lives of women in those days. There's much to interest the modern viewer, and many issues that are still alive in today's world. Only one thing strikes a false note. And for me it was an annoying matter. If Fanny Price is so independent-minded and creative, and free-spirited, and clever - even prepared to flout convention and refuse the hand of a handsome, rich suitor who seems genuinely to love her, WHY can't she tell her true love Edmund that she loves him? It is infuriating. She's smart enough to realise Edmund loves her (Hell, we all realise it instantly!). She knows she'd be good for him. So why can't she drop him a hint?

That's a real problem with the changes Rozema has made, I'm afraid. It undermines the key arc of the narrative. But I still managed to enjoy the film, and especially the performances of Frances O'Connor, Harold Pinter (as Sir Thomas Bertram - Pinter started out as an actor, and it shows) and Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz as Henry and Mary Crawford.

One last quibble: no one in the film ever seems to refer to Fanny without using her surname - but I kept thinking of Fanny Brice. Most distracting!