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June 21, 2007 / Tony

Mansfield Park Review

(This is my first full-blown movie review so please excuse the poor writing and analysis.)

Mansfield Park (1999, starring Frances O’Connor) is a rather modern take on the Jane Austen novel.  It is the story of a poor girl named Fanny Price who, probably through some begging of her mother, is transplanted to a wealthy relative’s estate.  There she is refined into a gentlewoman (for the most part) and is educated.  However, her inferior connections (due to her rather unfortunate connection with her poor family) make her a second class citizen in her new home.  It is only her cousin Edmund (Johnny Lee Miller) who treats her with respect.  Her other relatives all treat her as some sort of an elevated servant.  For, of course, they all come from “good society” and hence are superior in morals, opinions, elegance, and nobility. 

Nonetheless, Fanny grows up at Mansfield Park and eventually becomes an essential part of the household, even if most of the residents there would not admit to it.  It is when she is around 20 years old (probably about 7 years after arriving at Mansfield Park) that the story really starts going.  It is at that point when the parsonage at Mansfield Park is filled by Mr. Crawford and his sister.  They are all elan and panache.  Everyone, except Fanny, is taken in with their exceptional manners, pleasing countenances, and their raw sensuality (this is the only Austen movie in which there is a definite sexual vibe running through it).  Edmund, by which now Fanny is quite in love with, is taken with Miss Crawford.  Edmund’s two sisters, of whom one is already engaged and becomes married, fall for Mr. Crawford.  At this point, numerous flirtations occur, many of which border on the inappropriate. 

Eventually, Mr. Crawford persuades himself that he is in love with Fanny.  She initially rejects him for two reasons: 1) She is in love with Edmund and 2) She has reservations about his character.  Her rejection upsets the household and eventually she is sent back to live with her poor family.  There she continues to be pursued by Mr. Crawford and at last she accepts.  However, she recalls her assent the next morning.  She then seems destined to live her life out there.  But when the eldest son of the Mansfield Park family falls ill that she is recalled to the estate (it is then that the family realizes her worth to them) and all becomes well.  Mr. Crawford and his sister are found to be quite immoral and Edmund and Fanny agree to marry. 

There are three points I want to make about this film.  First, the filmmaker has done a wonderful job of showing the evil lurking underneath the “fine society: of 19th century England.  The patriarch of Mansfield Park supports his family through the slave trade.  The scurrilous suitor of Fanny is nothing but a sex-obsessed man who never really got past adolescence.  He eventually is caught fornicating with Edmund’s married sister.   And her love, her cousin Edmund, is blockheaded enough to be entranced by the opportunistic sister of Fanny’s suitor.  All those in the film who are supposed to be of good breeding are morally confused.  This makes them either susceptible to the evil of others or incapable of changing their behavior to conform themselves the moral behavior.  The relationship between Edmund and Mr. Crawford’s sister is indicative.  He is shallow enough to be trapped (for awhile) by the more overt lack of moral fiber of Miss Crawford.  In fact, all of them are trapped in their society, culture, and moral failings.  As one of the characters says in the film, “I cannot get out.”

This brings me to my second point:  Fanny, being the outsider, is able to rise above the mess of life that is Mansfield Park.  She is able to discern the true character of Mr. and Miss Crawford before anyone else.  There is a point in the film where she says, “I can see more clearly in the rain.” 

Which brings me to my third point:  The other reason Fanny can see more clearly is the fact that she is so boringly banal.  In the film, she has not great beauty or great manners.  She is a somewhat talented writer (eventually published) but she is not a mover or shaker in the sense that she makes things happen.  She is a reactive character, not a proactive character.  The most significant action she takes in the whole film is a refusal.  Hence, I think, we see she is good just through her absence of evil.  Or, better yet perhaps, good is not necessarily a proactive action, it is sometimes just enough to refrain from evil. 

One last thing:  I have one literary theory about Fanny’s name.  Jane Austen’s other heroines are named Elizabeth, Elinor, Anne, and Catherine.  All of which are elegant names, shall we say.  Fanny, on the other hand, is quite plain and used in her other novels for less important characters.  So, perhaps Austen used her name as a way of showing her plainness, her lack of action, and her banality.  But those things become interesting and significant when weighed against the actions of her fellow characters.  Perhaps that is why Henry Crawford desired her so greatly. 

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