Friday, January 12, 2007

Movie Review: Mansfield Park 4 ½ Stars

I’m not such a huge fan of little women wuthering. Tom Sawyer and Jim from Treasure Island don’t wuther. I imagine most canonized literati never wuthered either. But then again, most literature prior to the last century (at least recognized literature) was written by men. Sure, the Bronte sisters wuthered. I think they even coined the phrase. And horribly shy poetess shut-ins wuthered non-stop.

Jane Austen, however, was not a wutherer. Her rich novels of adolescent identity crises and love unrequited are girl power adventure stories, the yang counterpart to Huck Finn’s river rafting. Her third novel, Mansfield Park, an irony-tinged indictment of early 19th Century classism, the slave trade and marriage as a social contract, comes alive under Patricia Rozema’s deft direction.

Adapting elements of Austen’s letters and journals in addition to the novel, Rozema has constructed a complex character in heroine Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor), a strong-willed young woman of common birth who, adopted into the home of Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter), attempts to define herself as an equal in the eyes of the family. She and Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), the second son, share a passion for storytelling; enthralled by her gift for writing, he fuels her desire for betterment.

Their unspoken love for each other is tested when Henry (Alessandro Nivola) and Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz), wealthy Londoner siblings (and libertines) move into the Bertram’s parsonage. Edmund falls for the beautiful sophisticate Mary, while the rakish Henry attempts to woo Fanny. Uncomfortable with her newfound social status, Fanny sees through Henry, who has the want for “being loved but not for loving.” Her denial of his marriage proposal throws the Bertram family into a maelstrom of turmoil in which true love prevails, but not nearly so neatly.

Rozema’s wonderfully witty script rolls off the tongues of her actors, who approach the 19th Century with a freshness and naturalness typically uncommon in stuffier period dramas. Mansfield Park is shored up with a fine supporting cast, including Lady Bertram (Lindsay Duncan), eldest son Tom, (James Puerfoy), eldest daughter Maria (Victoria Hamilton) and sister Julia (Justine Waddell), courtier Mr. Rushworth (Hugh Bonneville) and the cruel Mrs. Norris (Sheila Gish).

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