Mansfield Park (1999) is a romantic comedy-drama film based on the novel of the same name written by Jane Austen. It also has references to Austen’s earlier writings before she become a more widely known author, including her work The History of England (1791). Directed by Patricia Rozema, the film tells on its surface a story of the dramas which occur within a wealthy English family from the heroine Fanny Price’s perspective. There are scandals, jealousy, a mother hooked on opium, and references to the contradictory slave trade in which Fanny’s family was involved. But, as with most stories, it is usually recognized as a romance.
Criticism on the book itself is varied. Some assert it is one of Austen’s more complicated novels with imperfect, yet identifiable main characters and witty uses of location to mirror later events in the story. Others argue Fanny Price is a dull heroine, especially when compared to others like Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice.
My opinion of this story has transformed over the years. When I first read it perhaps ten years ago, I didn’t understand its story, symbolism or wit as I should have. I remember liking Fanny as a character with strong moral principles, in which she remained unshaken. I also was somewhat upset she and Henry Crawford did not marry in the end. Like many, I had, and maybe still have, a particular weakness for love stories where love changes major flaws in its characters. I thought Edmund was boring but accepted their ending together.
When I first watched the film I thought it deviated too much from the novel. The references to the slave trade jarred me and Henry Crawford’s betrayal with Maria upset me greatly. I was determined I would leave the movie alone and move on to other romances.
Well, as it happens, I returned to this movie. A few nights ago, I wanted to see something romantic. But unable to find anything else suitable, I settled on Mansfield Park. My admiration for this film has skyrocketed these last few days since seeing it again as I have reflected on its messages. Despite my previous thoughts, I believe it captured the overarching idea Austen had for the original novel.
(Hannah Taylor-Gordon as young Franny Price, On the way to Mansfield she hears slaves singing, 1999)
Much of the movie’s charm lies in subtle moments, which reflect major events which proceed later in the story. Or, more precisesly what is bot bwing said. As an audience, we must think and look carefully to understand its message. Now, I don’t think the idea is of this story is “What does it mean to fall in love?” As Edmund says in the movie, “There are as many forms of love as moments in time.” I think what all viewers need to learn from this story is, “When is it right to act on and pursue love?”. Basically, what are the fruits of these “many forms of love” Edmund referred to?
For those who do not know, the story takes place in the early 19th century in England. Miss Fanny Price, the second eldest in a large family leaves her family to live with her mother’s sister in Northamptonshire at Mansfield Park indefinitely, due to her family’s poor circumstances. Estranged from her immediate family, she feels lonely and inferior to her cousins, especially Maria and Julia who look down on her due to her lack of education. However, her cousin Edmund is genuine and kind to her thus leading to her falling in love with him, whilst living silently as a companion to Mrs. Bertram and Norris.
Throughout the story important events occur. One, Fanny’s uncle Mr. Norris dies and his dear, but apathetic wife Mrs. Norris decides to move leaving the parsonage in which they lived open. To add to the rather unremarkable family dramas, Maria also becomes engaged to Mr Rushmore, a boring but wealthy young man. As Miss Austen penned, “Life seem(ed) nothing more than a quick succession of busy nothings.” But, as we all know, when such stories seem settled within themselves change comes creeping in.
Well, two extraordinary people come to stay at the parsonage, Miss Mary Crawford and her brother Henry Crawford. They are handsome, charming, worldly and they stir things up at Mansfield Park unashamedly. Maria and Julia are completely smitten with Mr. Crawford, who unapologetically flirts with both of them. Also, to Fanny’s dismay Edmund falls for Miss Crawford.
Then, Tom Bertram, Edmund’s older brother, returns unexpectedly from Antiga and proposes they put on a rather scandalous play called Lover’s Vows. Fanny alone remains completely estranged from it. Even Edmund eventually becomes involved in order to keep others outside the family uninvolved, though initially he was disgusted with it. The father Mr. Bertram eventually returns and disbands the play, but its effects stay in place though Maria still marries her fiance and Tom leaves again with Mr. Yates.
Then something unexpected happens, Mr. Crawford begins to notice and fall in love with Fanny Price, who he recognizes for her purity and goodness. Though he proposes to her, she rejects him because she does not trust him. Even when she is sent home to her family, Lord Bertram believing her to be blind to and ungrateful for a good thing, Mr. Crawford follows her and still tries to court her. Though her heart begins to soften to him, she still remains hesitant. At this point in the story, it very well seems she will marry Mr. Crawford, having changed him through love, and Edmund will marry Mary Crawford.
But that does not happen. Henry has a scandalous affair with Maria which ruins any chance he could possibly have had with Fanny. Edmund also discontinues his pursuits for Mary Crawford when he shockingly learns how she is not at all upset by her brother’s affair and even wishes his brother Tom will die so he can inherit the estate. In the end, Lord Bertram comes to revere Fanny as one of his own daughters and finally Fanny is accepted completely into their family. Fanny and Edmund also marry in the end, he finally realizing his love for her.
(Francis O’Connor as Fanny Price, Franny looks out the window at Edmund, 1999)
Synopsis over, lets focus on the movie. First, the acknowledged major differences. Fanny in the book is portrayed as shy, weak and timid, basically overshadowed by her more boisterous cousins. In the movie however, Fanny essentially becomes a mirror of Jane Austen herself, healthy, vibrant, strong-willed and an aspiring young author. I like this change. It gave her more presence and also the power to make things happen.
Second, the slave trade and her family’s involvement in it is explored more through the movie. It is not too focused on, but it is definitely important to character development, specifically for Fanny, Tom Bertram and Lord Bertram. I liked the references to it because it pointed out the ugly truth of living in their world, for the Bertram family lived off profits from it. It is evil, leaves an bitter taste in the mouth, but pushes needed changes in the family.
Now, I think this film is powerful, with profound messages and engaging characters. When I finished watching it a few days I thought to myself, “There is a lesson to be learned here.”
So much of its story, like in the book, is focused on foreshadowing through the small and simple acts of its characters. The greatest example of this is their childish rendering of the play Lover’s Vows. On its surface, its seems an innocent thing but eventually it set the stage for major events later on in the film. Centered on infidelity, manipulation and speculation the play reflected the interactions of the characters and their proceeding fates.
Edmund, who finally with the thought of being able to flirt with Miss Crawford, is manipulated both as the character in the play as the clergyman and by Miss Crawford herself. He doesn’t open his eyes to her true character until the end of the movie. Maria and Mr. Crawford shamelessly flirt throughout rehearsals, unstopped by the rest of the family, setting the stage for their eventual affair. Fanny alone remains the sole character who sees the play for what it is and refusing to take part is unscarred by its affects and retains her moral principles.
(Francis O’Connor and Alessandro Nivola as Mr. Crawford, Mr. Crawford trying to whoo Fanny, 1999.)
I believe much of the film’s charm lies in Fanny’s ability to follow her conscience and choose her own happiness. There were so many times I could see others trying to create for her her ideal life. At first, the Bertram’s push her down, failing to acknowledge her skills, wit and moral character. Later, they notice only her looks. As for Mr Crawford, for much of the book and I would say even in the movie he sees her as a conquest, even if he unconsciously did so.
(Francis O’Connor and Johnny Lee Miller, Final confession and embrace, 1999)
But, Fanny Price chose the happy ending she desired, not the one chosen for her. Other romances would have her be with Mr. Crawford, a dashing handsome man with fortune. But she kept her focus on what she wanted and in the end, she achieved what she had desired throughout the story. She was accepted and loved for who she truly was and she gained the love of a dear, kind man who became her companion and dearest friend. She chose her happiness and stayed true to herself. For such, I believe she is an incredibly admirable person.
As for the other characters, they also had to face the consequences of their actions. Where Fanny had remained steadfast and moral, others suffered for their decisions. Her elder cousin Tom drank himself nearly to death. Maria, who could have escaped her life with Mr. Rushworth, chose wealth and later, grossly unhappy, a life of solitude caused by her affair. Mr. Crawford is a truly tragic figure because he had begun to change. Even in the movie, if he had stayed true to his newfound feelings he would have been with Fanny. But heartbroken and overcome he transgressed and destroyed his future with her.
Something else I think is important though is Fanny would eventually have been very unhappy married to Mr. Crawford. Given his nature, he would have smothered her talents and once the luster of infatuation had faded might very well had betrayed her. Edmund as well would have suffered in a marriage to Miss Crawford because she did not accept him for who he was, his wishes to be a clergyman or his other interests. She was incredibly self motivated and tried to change him into the kind of man she wanted, one who would give her wealth, fortune and wide social recognition.
(Illustration of Miss Crawford playing the harp for Edmund and Mrs. Grant.)
But, I don’t feel Edmund’s love for Miss Crawford was on the same level as his love for Fanny. Edmund is probably the most interesting character because he did not realize himself the depth or nature of his feelings. As Juliet McMaster wrote in her book, Love: Surface and Subsurface, “Edmund’s unconscious courtship of Fanny, which is concurrent with his deliberate courtship of Mary” was one of the most fascinating elements of the story. Where Fanny knew and understood her feelings, it took Edmund time to recognize the love he felt for Fanny was greater than he initially supposed.
(Francis O’Connor and Johny Lee Miller, Embrace after seeing the affair, 1999)
One of the most striking scenes which illustrates this is in the film when Edmund comes to pick Fanny up from her home in Portsworth, for Tom having fallen gravely ill. When Fanny asks Edmund if he is doing well he responds, “Yes. As I intimated in my last letter, I believe Mary has almost reconciled herself to marrying a stodgy clergyman.” On the surface, he is focused on his infatuation with Miss Crawford. But, as the conversation continues, his true feelings surface without him initially realizing it. (To see the video for it, CLICK HERE)
Edmund: I understand Crawford paid you a visit.
Edmund: And was he attentive?
Fanny: Yes… Very.
Edmund: And has your heart changed towards him?
Fanny: Yes… Several times. I have… I find that l… I find that…
Edmund: (Shh). . . Surely you and I are beyond speaking,
when words are clearly not enough. (Pause) I missed you.
Fanny: And I you.
What I cannot portray simply through dialogue here are the subtle looks and changes in both Fanny and Edmund as they spoke. It is clear they are dear to one another, but Fanny is tenative, trying hard not to betray her feelings. Edmund at one point after Fanny places her hand on the seat, reaches over and takes it without looking at her. Throughout the film I noticed small unspoken gestures like these which passed between them. I thought if all of us could find someone like that in this life, we would be very lucky.
Much of Mansfield Park‘s charm truly lies in what is NOT said. Disney animator Ollie Johnston said in regards to creating characters in film, “You have to make it sincere, so that the audience will believe everything they do, all their emotions. Ask yourself: What is the character thinking and why does he feel this way?” I caught myself doing this so many times throughout this movie, from the dance sequence between Miss and Mr Crawford, Edmund and Fanny to Fanny’s longing stare outside the window to Edmund as he walked with Miss Crawford and Edmund’s kind way of embracing Fanny after she saw Mr. Crawford and Maria having an affair.
The greatest lesson I learned when watching was that though we may fall in love, it may not be with the right person. But, I also learned when one does find the right person, who uplifts them and loves them throughout the layers and complexities of time a relationship is a truly beautiful and fulling thing. Jennifer Moore in her fictional novel Miss Burton Unmasks a Prince stated,
“The correct relationship will make a person bloom. He becomes more himself, his talents deepen, his personality grows, and he thrives. But the wrong relationship will produce the opposite. The things that were once so vital no longer matter. His talents disappear, his individuality fades, and he wilts.”
I think for this movie, I will refrain from rating it. I would rather simply enjoy the time it gave me to think about love in such a delightful way. This movie is clever, thought provoking and enjoyable, though I am sure I have to be in just the right mood to see it. Such is the case, I give it a medal of approval and a congratulations for causing me to think so deeply.
FAVORITE QUOTES: (There are many.)
2.Fanny Price: Maria was married on Saturday. In all important preparations of mind she was complete, being prepared for matrimony by a hatred of home, by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry. The bride was elegantly dressed and the two bridesmaids were duly inferior. Her mother stood with salts, expecting to be agitated, and her aunt tried to cry. Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.
3.Edmund: Fanny, I must confess something. I’ve loved you all my life.
Fanny: I know, Edmund.
Edmund: No, Fanny… As a man loves a woman. As a hero loves a heroine. As I’ve never loved anyone in my entire life. I was so anxious to do what is right… …that I forgot to do what is right. But if you choose me, after all my blundering and blindness, that will be a happiness which no description could reach.
4.[On the play Lover’s Vows] Edmund: More dim-witted fiction to clutter the world.
Miss Crawford: Come now, Mr Bertram. Drama is to life what ships are to the sea. A means to traverse it. To plumb its depths, breadth and beauty.
Edmund: I couldn’t agree more. Good drama, in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the liveliest wit, are conveyed to the world through the best chosen language. This is essential. This is trash!
Tom Bertram: He’s so serious!
Edmund: That is the worst charge, isn’t it?
5.Miss Crawford: Is Edmund to be a clergyman?
Miss Crawford: But a clergyman is so drear. A clergyman’s wife is even worse!
Edmund: What profession would you suggest, Miss Crawford? I’m not, as you know, the first born.
Miss Crawford: There must be an uncle or grandfather to place you somewhere?
Edmund: There is not.
Miss Crawford: Choose law, then, it’s not too late. At least you can distinguish yourself there with language and wit.
Edmund: I have no wish to blunder about on the borders of empty repartee.
Miss Crawford: Your father could put you into Parliament.
Edmund: My father’s choices are less than compelling for me. No, I wish to become a clergyman. There are worse things than a life of compassion and contemplation.