Monday, August 20, 2012

Jane Austen with a hint of raciness and race

We just watched the 1999 version of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park with a capable English cast, few of whom we had seen before. The heroine of this story is Fanny Price, played with wit and grace by Frances O'Connor. As a child Fanny is taken from her impoverished family to her aunt and uncle's estate to be raised with their children. As she grows up, she writes history, novels, and opinions and is befriended by the second son Edmund, while the other children look down on her. As an adult, Fanny is pursued by a charming cad whom the family pushes her to marry. Fanny, like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, is honest, out-spoken, witty and far superior to those around her. But, as in other Austen novels, it takes her a long time to bring these assets to the fore and realize what to do with them. This is the strongest element of the film.

I wonder what Jane Austen would say about some of the expansions the film makes on her plot. Sir Thomas Benton, her benefactor, seems a good and caring man, but Fanny and we discover that Mansfield Park is paid for by slave labor in Antigua. His eldest son Tom made sketches of the brutal treatment these slaves received, even from Sir Thomas. Another interesting suggestion in the film is that of a lesbian desire on the part of Mary Crawford, the somewhat amoral sister of Fanny's ardent suitor Henry. There are two not too subtle scenes in which she seems to be seducing Fanny. There is also a scene which did definitely not occur in the novel. When Henry fails with Fanny he takes one of the Benton girls to bed. Unfortunately for all, she is married and Henry bails. The scene itself is risque but necessary to reveal truths about the major characters. Would Jane have approved?

Mansfield Park does not have the star power of bigger productions like Pride and Prejudice (Colin Firth on Masterpiece, Keira Knightly in the film) or Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and the wondrous Kate Winslett). But it has solid performances and strong story-telling. I highly recommend this little seen jewel.

Another film now on dvd features a very different young woman from what Austen imagined. Margaret, a long delayed film by director Kenneth Lonergan (the wonderful You Can Count on Me with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo giving superb performances) is a portrait of a high school girl who witnesses a tragic bus accident and believes that she and the driver were responsible. This idea becomes an obsession with Margaret, played with gutsy aggression by Anna Paquin (Oscar winner for The Piano), who alienates her friends and family. The film takes its good time in developing her character. Part of the problem is that director Lonergam, who originally insisted on a 3 hour cut, can't resist moody shots of the New York skyline or of Margaret wandering the streets where the accident occurred. The supporting cast is almost flawless, especially Mark Ruffalo as the broken bus driver and J. Smith-Cameron as her highly strung but loving mother. Margaret could have been as fine a film as You Can Count on Me, if restraint and fewer plot elements had been used. Still, it is still worth seeing for the performances and for one of the most riveting accidents I have ever seen in a movie.

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