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[whitespace] Frances O'Connor
Clive Coote

Playing the Price: Frances O'Connor portrays vivacious heroine Fanny Price in Patricia Rozema's version of 'Mansfield Park.'

Director Patricia Rozema infuses 'Mansfield Park' with playfulness

By Heather Zimmerman

WHILE JANE AUSTEN scholars debate the addition of a few risqué scenes in the latest film adaptation of Austen's novel Mansfield Park, the author herself would probably approve of the nontraditional spirit of the project, even if she frowned on some of writer/director Patricia Rozema's specific devices. Austen expertly skewered the stodgy pomp and circumstance of society in her day, so maybe she wouldn't be too quick to dismiss an interpretation of her tale that so aptly mirrors the attitude of her vivacious and intelligent heroine, Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor).

At a young age, Fanny is sent away from her impoverished parents for a better life as a higher-class servant to her cousins, the Bertrams, a gaggle of wealthy, toffee-nosed society folk (most of whom never let her forget their kindness in elevating her status). But as a young woman, Fanny's beauty and braininess catch the fancy of both a rich family friend, Henry (Alessandro Nivola) and Fanny's cousin Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller), who is planning to join the clergy (which, we're made to understand, is pretty much the same thing as planning to be poor). Henry forsakes stringent class boundaries in his persistent marriage proposals to Fanny, but quiet, bookish Edmund holds more appeal for her.

Despite the excruciatingly polite class cruelties Fanny endures from many of her rich relatives, the film wisely avoids sugarcoating Fanny's pauper parents as living a "simpler" life--there are no comfortingly jolly peasants in the hovel where the family lives. That's not to say her parents and siblings, very unromantically starving and grimy, aren't sympathetic figures--particularly Fanny's mother, who, permanently exhausted and grim, warns her, "I married for love."

Miserable in their own way are the Bertram women. Every day, Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan) tipples "medicinally" until she's insensible. Her daughter Maria (Victoria Hamilton) is a debutante who has married "well" but too hastily a self-congratulatory twit. Between rich and poor women, Rozema creates a vivid illustration of the dearth of choices for all women in Austen's time, demonstrating Fanny's courage in making an unpopular decision--although one that ensures that she's still every bit the romantic heroine.

Rozema infuses the film with playfulness, toying with unusual camerawork and occasional witty asides to the audience, just to the point that it illustrates Fanny's quiet irreverence and free-spiritedness, which is beautifully conveyed by O'Connor. But Rozema also enhances the dark underbelly of the world of rich and powerful that is often left unexplored in fluffier Austen adaptations--particularly accentuating the hypocrisy of Fanny's uncle, Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter), a slave trader so pious and proper he's outraged by the thought of his offspring performing in a play. Embeth Davidtz is delightfully devious as the anti-heroine, Henry's sister Mary, a well-born, highly respected lady who inspires much admiration among Quality People, who don't notice for quite a long time that Mary never seems to be troubled by a conscience.

Mansfield Park (PG-13; 98 min.) written and directed by Patricia Rozema, photographed by Michael Coulter and starring Frances O'Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, Harold Pinter and Embeth Davidtz, opens Saturday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the December 22-29, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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