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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Mansfield Park (review)

Jane Yawnsten

There’s a term for characters like Fanny Price: Mary Sue. And it’s not a particularly nice term. Mary Sues are stand-ins for the author, the author idealized, as Fanny surely must be for Jane Austen in Mansfield Park. Fanny is beautiful, kind, faultless yet modest, noble of heart and spirit but of humble origins that prevent her from being spoiled. She is, in a word, perfect. Fanny may have pleased Austen herself, but she makes for less than compelling drama for the rest of us, at least in the new adaptation of the novel that just aired on Masterpiece Theater, and lands on DVD today.
This is part of the Austen marathon PBS is running this winter, and it’s not a total loss — even the worst film version of Austen has its moments. Billie Piper, Rose from Doctor Who, seems like a bit of stunt casting as Fanny, but she’s probably the best thing about this new made-for-TV movie: she’s so genuinely ebullient that you forget that you really should want to hate her for being so impossibly perfect. And weirdly enough, she actually seems less anachronistic here, in the early 19th century, than she did as the Victorian-era girl detective in PBS Mystery’s Ruby in the Smoke (which is perfectly delightful anyway) — there’s something about her bleached blonde hair and contrasting dark eyebrows that simply screams 20th century, at least, if not actually 21st. But she’s a good embodiment of the Fanny that director Iain B. MacDonald seems to want to capture: bright and bubbly and not at all the typical demure Austen heroine.

But the rest of the little society at the Bertram manor known as Mansfield Park is pretty dull. Pretty, but dull. Fanny came here as a child to live with her rich relatives — including one played by another girl of geek interest: Michelle Ryan, the new Bionic Woman — and now all manner of typically Austenian matrimonial intrigue threatens to rock the family, and in the process quash her longtime secret in-loved-ness with her cousin Edmund. (Yeah, today we might find it icky to be in love with a cousin, but I guess Austen didn’t.) There’s a moment when Blake Ritson, as Edmund, finally perks up — it’s that a-ha moment when he suddenly realizes he’s been in love with Fanny all along, too — but that’s a long time coming, and not worth the slog to get to it.

(P.S. What’s up with PBS now calling Masterpiece Theater just “Masterpiece”? Is this like Kentucky Fried Chicken morphing into mere KFC? Are we all too cool now to say “Masterpiece Theater”?)

[buy at Amazon]

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MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

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  • Grand Sophy

    I came to this review having just watched Mansfield Park, and being struck by the urge to google the title in conjunction with “Mary Sue.” It’s pretty blatant, and it’s hard to like a character when the author is forcing her down your throat–which also rather applies to Edmund. I did rather like Mrs. Bertram and Mary Crawford, as slightly more complex and occasionally surprising characters.

  • Danielle

    Didn’t watch this, but I saw the ads for it on PBS and thought the same thing about Billie Piper looking a bit too modern!

  • SW

    The fault lies with the script writer, not with Austen. I love Billie Piper, but this was perhaps the most atrocious adaptation of an Austen novel I’ve ever seen. Fanny was never meant to be a Mary Sue.

    In the novel Fanny is sickly physically (that’s why Edmund gives her the horse, so she can ride for exercise every day) and can be judgmental and weak-willed, perhaps partly from nature and partly from being put down constantly. Moreover, after she marries Edmund and her sister comes to stay with Lady Bertram in her place, Austen comments that Susan is more efficient and capable than Fanny ever was. Fanny’s main qualities are simply a perceptiveness, modesty and loyalty. An extra compassion and sympathy are not always there. She has difficulty understanding why anyone would act immorally and so rarely has any sympathy for weakness in that regard.

    In fact, Austen gives to “villainess” Mary Crawford some of the qualities Fanny lacks–generosity, openness–to contrast with her main character. Austen also let the bad guy Henry Crawford be the first man to realize Fanny’s worth as a woman and potential wife, before any of the Bertrams, including Edmund.

    Attempting to make Fanny more palatable to modern tastes, plus casting a healthy and beautiful Piper, was a poor move on this adaptation’s part and not reflective of Austen’s work. They ruined one of Austen’s most complex characters in one of Austen’s more adult novels. The old BBC version with the (overly) wide-eyed Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny and Nicholas Farrell as Edmund was more accurate.

    (And Austen’s favorite was Elizabeth Bennet, not Fanny Price.)

  • MaryAnn

    I stand corrected, then. But Fanny certainly comes across as a Mary Sue here.

    But Austen’s favorite doesn’t have to have been her Mary Sue, you know…

  • I just saw this… It wasn’t awful– Patricia Rozema’s adaptation was MUCH worse, actively insulting. You find yourself rooting for Fanny to run off with a gorgeous, hunky, charming Henry Crawford.

    When I saw it, Rozema was actually presenting and had discussion afterwards… I had to just bite my tongue. A lot.

  • Isobel

    I love Jane Austen but Mansfield Park has always been my least favourite. I just always wanted Fanny to get a bit of backbone (she’s such a delicate weakling in the novel, and I could never understand why Austen was so fond of her and referred to her as ‘my Fanny’ when she also created Lizzies and Janes and Mariannes and Catherines) and just marry Frank Crawford!

  • Pat Bassler

    I will stick to the version with Frances O’Connor and Johnny Miller.

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