Monday, March 19, 2007

Mansfield Park

I like Jane Austen, I loved "Pride and Prejudice" (with added wet Colin Firth, who didn't?), I loved the film version of "Sense and Sensibility" and I love the books with out question. So when ITV announced an series of Austen adaptations I was excited, but also a bit nervous, because the BBC do costume dramas a lot better than ITV. But I sat down, to watch Mansfield Park with a large cup of tea and big hopes.

The cast was youthful, with two very recognisable faces in prominent roles: Billie Piper as Fanny Price and Michelle Ryan as Maria Bertram. In addition to whom, Hayley Atwell played the scheming Mary Crawford and Catherine Steadman played Julia Bertram.

The boys in breeches were: Rory Kinnear as Mr. Rushworth, Blake Ritson as Edmund Bertram, Joseph Beattie as Henry Crawford and the delicious but sadly little used James D'Arcy as Tom Bertram. Adding some age and gravitas to the cast were Maggie O'Neill as Aunt Norris, Jemma Redgrave as Lady Bertram and Douglas Hodge as Sir Thomas Bertram, who were both far too young to be the parents of such aged children, did they start popping the sprogs out when they were 12?

Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, a poor relative taken to live with her rich Aunt and Uncle as their home and is brought up alongside her cousins Maria, Julia, Tom and Edmund. Out of all her cousins only kind Edmund takes any notice of her and is kind to her. We are told this in Fanny's voiceover, which is never a good sign. I'm not a fan of voiceovers. As I'm familiar with the novel, I tend to find them patronising. In this case it was used as exposition, but it did feel a bit clunky.

After beginning with the brief introduction of young Fanny at Mansfield Park, the story speeds forward to a now grown up Fanny Price and her cousins. Maria is a vain woman, engaged to be married to Mr. Rushworth, who is a silly man and infatuated with Maria. Julia her sister is Maria's twin in all but years and Tom is a layabout, drunk and gambler. Only Edmund is steadfast and good, and is just about to be ordained as a clergyman.

While Sir Thomas is away on business in the West Indies, trouble comes to call in the shape of brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, a handsome pair of siblings, with flowing locks on one side and the obligatory period drama bosoms on the other.

You know they are going be bad news, his cravat is unnecessarily flouncy and she wears very fancy hats. Their plan is to marry Henry off to Julia, while Mary sets her sights on Tom. Things do not go to plan, Henry catches the eye of the already engaged Maria and Mary has to make do with Edmund as Tom is out carousing and betting on horses. Both Henry and Mary are shallow but calculating characters and they are portrayed very well by the actors. Unfortunately neither of them is entirely capable of speaking in regency grammar and sounding authentic. Almost all the characters are unable to make the period dialogue sound convincing and realistic and it shows.

The Crawfords convince the Bertrams to put on a play, how racy! Which eventually comes to nothing as Sir Thomas returns from the West Indies and shows his disapproval by glowering and burning the scripts, by which time Mary has beguiled Edmund, to the disapproval and disappointment of Fanny.

Maria foolishly marries Mr. Rushworth, who was brilliantly brought to life by Rory Kinnear (an actor who I think will go far) as a vain, foppish and silly man. Sir Thomas in a fit of insight, plainly asks Maria if she is happy to marry Rushworth, as he has noticed her attraction to Henry. Maria replies that she is very happy to marry Mr. Rushworth and so they are married and Maria leaves the family home for her own in London.

Now Henry deprived of Maria and the younger Julia turns his attentions to Fanny, he seems quite taken with her sweetness and in his pursuit of her affections arranges to get her sailor brother William a commission on a ship.

Unfortunately when Henry comes to propose, Fanny turns him down, she only has eyes for Edmund; this makes her Aunt and Uncle unhappy. Aware that Fanny is poor and therefore not particularly marriageable, they are horrified that she refused. As punishment they leave poor Fanny all alone in the house while they go to visit Lady Bertram's sister. This made me quite angry, the writer deviated from the book considerably by entirely writing out the rest of Fanny's family, whom she goes to visit (in the book) instead of rattling around a house on her own. Regardless of that deviation, this treatment of course has no effect as, Mr Crawford is again rebuffed when he comes to call.

By this point Edmund is a certified clergyman and Mary Crawford is pleading with him to take up law instead to of the church, despite her attraction to Edmund she doesn't want to even dance with a clergyman, let alone marry one.

When Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram return home, they bring Tom back with them. He is gravely ill, as his drinking and carousing have left him very ill. But you'll be glad to know after the icky application of leeches (ew) and bed rest, with Fanny reading the Racing Post to him, he's soon better. Edmund is also home to check on his brother, and this is when the news reaches them that Mr Crawford, reeling after Fanny's cruel rejection, retreated to London where he visited Maria Rushworth and was comforted by her ample bosom. Scandalous. Of course Aunt Norris avers that it's all Fanny's fault, if she hadn't refused Mr Crawford, Maria would never have been in that situation.

Mary Crawford, trying to salvage something from the now extremely awkward situation, tries to get Edmund to intervene and get Henry and Maria married, so that the path to Edmund and her own nuptials be smoothed. Edmund finally sees Mary for the scheming gold digger she is and sends her packing.

Edmund eventually sees that Fanny is the girl for him, in the most hammy acting I've ever seen. The realisation that he loves Fanny dawns over his face in a second and he practically does a double take of Fanny. He may as well have stood up and said: "Why Miss. Price, you're beautiful!" Before you know it, they're married and are waltzing on the lawn.

The problem with the film was not the cast, they were uniformly good, with extra kudos, from me at least, going to Jemma Redgrave and Douglas Hodge playing the indolent Lady Bertram and the slightly tyrannical Sir Thomas respectively. They were such an engaging couple that I wanted the story to focus more on them than on the younger cast. This is never a good thing especially when they aren't the main focus of the story.

Setting aside the changes made to the story, the cast were good, who were unfortunately not entirely able to carry off the period dialogue realistically and this was a big problem. I didn't see them as the characters and Billie as Fanny Price was sweet, toothsome and winsome, but that just wasn't enough. The writer Maggie Wadey managed to take the story and iron nearly every piece of wit and humour out of it. Aunt Norris should've been a figure of ridicule and humour, instead when she finally leaves to live with Maria, you're glad to see that back of the old bat!

It's impossible not to measure this production up against the juggernaut that was "Pride and Prejudice", which just isn't fair, on it's own merits it was perfectly fine, but compare it and the lack of humour, uneven script and a relatively young cast, mean that it although it was enjoyable, it's not going to go down as a classic. Despite this, when Fanny and Edmund dance on the lawn at their wedding, I had a huge grin on my face, what can I say, I'm a sucker for a happy ending.


Brontëana said...

"You know they are going be bad news, his cravat is unnecessarily flouncy and she wears very fancy hats."

You always make me smile, Penny!

La Nouvelle Heloise said...

Hi Penny,
I only managed to catch the last 30 mins of this but from your review and the little I've seen, it looks like the BBC still rules supreme. Let's see if things improve tonight with NA...

Speaking of the mighty Beeb, are you looking forward to their own new take on S&S? I simply can't wait. Need something to cure my Jane Eyre addiction.

Billie Piper = toothsome. Yep, toothsome in every sense of the word...

Best, NH

lsucntrygrl said...

Wow! You are ruthless in this review. But I like that. Very honest. Kudos to you.

fifi said...

I know its not fashionable and I liked her in Dr Who, but I feel Billie Piper has been over-hyped and whilst I haven't seen Mansfield Park yet (recorded but not watched to date), I fear that I am going to agree with the Independent reviewer who felt that this was "Billie Piper does Fanny Price" and that whilst she is an engaging person, Billie does not have the acting ability to lose her own persona and really portray the character. Maybe that's unfair and I'll make my own judgment when I see the thing for myself.

I thought Northanger Abbey was a better effort, but ITV ain't a patch on BBC when it comes to producing period drama and we were so spoilt with Bleak House and Jane Eyre, I personally tend to approach ITV pieces with a premonition that they are never going to get it quite right.

Love the witty commentary Penny, you are the mistress of the genre!


pennyforyourdreams said...

Hi Bronteana,


Thanks for the comment, I aim to please.

pennyforyourdreams said...

Hi NH,

Billie is toothsome isn't she? Also to paraphrase Charlie Brooker; it looks like her face is competing with itself in the "which part of my face is the biggest" competition. As certain angles the girl looks odd.


pennyforyourdreams said...

Hi lsucntrygrl,

I just say things how I see it, the film could have been so much better, and there's no excuse for giving it an easy ride. I was entertained, but not that much!

pennyforyourdreams said...

Hi Fifi,

To say I was disappointed by Mansfield Park is quite true and that wasn't just because it was on ITV and I had lower expectations, it was because it just wasn't up the high standard that I expect from a costume drama. To be honest it looked cheap, where were the bewigged extras? The film was claustrophobically contained in one location and the script was dour. Oh dear.

I agree, I enjoyed Northanger Abbey far more.

And "mistress of the genre", aw shucks, thanks. That means a lot to me :D


ElStuddo said...

I would love to Marry, Mary! As well as Fanny P. It takes alot for someone like them to catch my attention. :)

日月神教-任我行 said...
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