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"MANSFIELD PARK"
(1999) (Frances O'Connor, Jonny Lee Miller) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Having grown up with her rich relatives, an early 19th century young woman must contend with not being their true equal while trying to sort out her romantic life and others' expectations of her.
PLOT:
Near the turn of the 19th century, Fanny Price (HANNAH TAYLOR GORDON), a young and poor girl from Portsmouth, is sent off to live with her far wealthier relatives in the lush countryside. Arriving at the sprawling estate known as Mansfield Park, Fanny is greeted by her two aunts, the condescending Mrs. Norris (SHEILA GISH) and her sister, the opium addicted Lady Bertram (LINDSAY DUNCAN). She's married to Sir Thomas Bertram (HAROLD PINTER), an older man who's made a fortune with his slave trade business, and he halfheartedly welcomes Fanny into his home.

Never their equal, Fanny (FRANCES O'CONNOR) grows up into a young woman there, developing a close bond with the family's youngest son, Edmund (JONNY LEE MILLER). The rest of his siblings, however, including sisters Julia (JUSTINE WADDELL) and Maria (VICTORIA HAMILTON) and older brother Tom (JAMES PUREFOY), see her as a mix of a destitute sister and servant girl.

Even so, Fanny has developed a certain confidence in herself and continues with her observational writing, continually sending letters back to her sister, Susan (SOPHIA MYLES), who still lives at home with their parents, (LINDSAY DUNCAN & HILTON McRAE). She gets more to write about when siblings Mary (EMBETH DAVIDTZ) and Henry Crawford (ALESSANDRO NIVOLA) arrive at Mansfield Park for an extended stay.

Attractive and charismatic, the two manage to stirs things up in the household, with both Julia and Maria interested in Henry, despite the latter being engaged and then married to Mr. Rushworth (HUGH BONNEVILLE). Yet the eligible bachelor is instead interested in Fanny, but she harbors secret romantic feelings for Edmund who in turn is interested in Mary.

As the respective family members and their guests jockey about for romantic pairings, things come to a head with Tom's refusal to follow in his father's footsteps and with Sir Thomas' insistence that Fanny marry Henry. With passions rising and facing an ultimatum, Fanny must decide how to play out her romantic future and what consequences her final choice will create.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
In the world of movies, certain genres obviously aim at certain moviegoers, such as the testosterone-laced action films from Jerry Bruckheimer targeting teen and twenty-something males, while certain films starring Julia Roberts and other romantic comedies are usually geared toward women and people on dates.

Yet even with their demographic targeting, most films usually play okay across the board and if good, draw in audiences from all demographics. While there may be a few other exceptions to the rule, period costume dramas are ones that can't be lumped into that category. The types associated with names such as Merchant-Ivory and like this one, Jane Austen, are either loved or hated, with few people falling anywhere in between those two reactions.

Not matter how good any such picture may be and/or how many awards it might win, such films -- nicknamed for the usually elaborate period costumes worn in them -- rarely, if ever, gain a crossover reception with a mainstream audience.

Patricia Rozema's version of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" isn't about to change that reality. The sixth such theatrical adaption of the late 18th/early 19th century English writer's works (if you include 1995's "Clueless" along with the more standard version of "Emma" and "Sense and Sensibility," etc...), this one may draw the most ire and criticism from the novelist's die-hard fans.

While I'm not familiar with the original novel, apparently writer/director Patricia Rozema ("When Night is Falling") has taken some -- or a lot, depending on your viewpoint -- of artistic liberty with the story, including inserting some sexual material and a more contemporarily based heroine and ideology into the proceedings.

In fact, the credits state that the film is based on Austen's original novel as well as her letters and early journals. As such, the film's central character has now been fashioned as a mix of the original literary character and Austen herself. While that may upset those familiar with the novel as well as stringent literary purists, for everyone else this one turns out to be a mostly enjoyable and entertaining picture.

Like most such films, this one features a group of seemingly regal characters living in a stately mansion, acting as if their day to day "worries" -- what to wear, what party to attend and what the "Windsors" might be up to and whether they can keep up with them -- are a big deal. Part of the "fun" is in watching such people who are about as far removed from the 9 to 5, daily rat race contemporary moviegoers must face, and the obligatory character who comes along and shakes up their lives.

In this case, it's Fanny Price, a poor girl and something of a familial disappointment since she comes from the wrong side of the cobblestone road. While in the original novel the character is reportedly something of a meek and passive mouse, Patricia Rozema has fashioned the character here as a Jane Austen-like character. As such, she's filled with witty observations, a penchant for writing, and the ability to simultaneously infuriate some of her housemates while charming others.

Of course that's about as exciting as it gets, but that's pretty much the standard for the genre. Sure, a sex scene has been thrown to spice things up along with some lesbian undertones, the latter of which ultimately never amount to anything (although reports are that some related material was cut for the film's U.S. theatrical release).

Beyond that, there's the usual "will they or won't they" element of different romantic pairings, and that's where the film generates most of it's fun. Although Rozema doesn't push the love combinations as far as some might like, to do so may have risked turning this into more of a romantic farce instead of the more proper drama.

As it stands, such romantic flirtations -- where various characters vie for others who in turn are interested in others themselves -- might be lacking in complex or even wicked schemes, but on a more realistic level are enjoyable to behold, if in a somewhat genial and understated way.

For the most part, the performances -- at least among the leads -- are good across the board with Frances O'Connor ("Kiss or Kill," "Love and Other Catastrophes") easily stealing the show despite her fourth place billing (which is somewhat odd since she embodies the lead character). Playing a confident if indecisive woman with a contemporary flair who's stuck in a more repressive society, O'Connor is quite enjoyable to watch and delivers a great performance.

Equally is good is Alessandro Nivola ("Best Laid Plans," "Face/Off") as her conniving and clearly persistent suitor. About as far removed from his role as the brother to Nicolas Cage's character in "Face/Off" as one could get, Nivola is quite good in this role and the flirtation scenes between him and O'Connor are simultaneously delightful and irritating (depending on how you might view her constantly rebuking his advances).

The rest of the major performances are good, ranging from Embeth Davidtz ("Fallen," "The Gingerbread Man") as Fanny's competitor for the more reserved character nicely played by Jonny Lee Miller ("Plunkett & Macleane," "Trainspotting"). Even the noted playwright and Oscar nominated screenwriter Harold Pinter shows up to deliver a good, if not always likable performance as the family patriarch.

While die-hard fans of Austen's works might not like the contemporary spin that Rozema has put on this latest adaption, most every other fan of period costume dramas will probably find it to their liking. Although it most likely will be limited to dwelling in the art house circuit and clearly won't cross over to the mainstream audience, this is an enjoyable production with strong performances that make it an entertaining diversion. We give "Mansfield Park" a 6.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 17, 1999 / Posted November 26, 1999

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