“MANSFIELD PARK” (1983) Review

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“MANSFIELD PARK” (1983) Review

Long before Patricia Rozema wrote and directed her 1999 adaptation of “Mansfield Park”, Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, the BBC aired its own adaptation some sixteen years earlier. This one came in the form of a six-part miniseries and is regarded by many Austen fans as the definitive screen version of the novel. 

“MANSFIELD PARK” told the story of Fanny Price, the oldest daughter of a former Royal Navy officer, who is sent by her parents to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle-in-law, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, at their estate called Mansfield Park, during the early 19th century. Viewed as socially inferior by her new family, Fanny is treated as half-relative/half-servant by the Bertrams. Only Edmund, the family’s second son, treats her with great kindness and love. Because of Edmund’s behavior, Fanny finds herself in love with him by the age of eighteen. But her life and the Bertrams’ lives soon encounter a force of nature in the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford, a pair of vivacious siblings that are related to the local vicar’s wife. Henry ends up stirring excitement and romantic interest within the breasts of the two Bertram sisters – Maria and Julia. And much to Fanny’s dismay, Edmund forms a romantic attachment to the alluring Mary.

In compare to the 1999 Patricia Rozema version and the ITV 2007 movies, this 1983 miniseries is a more faithful adaptation of Austen’s novel. Considering its six episodes, I do not find this surprising. Literary fans tend to be more impressed by cinematic adaptations that are very faithful to its source. However, “MANSFIELD PARK” is not a completely faithful adaptation. Screenwriter Ken Taylor completely ignored Fanny’s questions regarding Sir Thomas’ role as a slaveowner with an estate in Antigua. Whereas Austen’s novel and the 2007 movie briefly touched upon the subject, writer/director Patricia Rozema literally confronted it. Only the miniseries ignored the topic, altogether. Judging from the fans’ reaction to this deviation from Austen’s novel, I suspect that many of them are willing to pretend that the subject of slavery was never broached in the miniseries.

Did I enjoy “MANSFIELD PARK”? Well . . . the miniseries had its moments. It allowed me to become more aware of the plot details in Austen’s 1814 novel than the other adaptations did. I enjoyed the scene featuring the Bertrams’ introduction to the Crawford siblings. I enjoyed the ball held in Fanny’s honor in Episode Four. It struck me as very elegant and entertaining. I also enjoyed the constant flirtation and verbal duels between Edmund and Mary, despite my dislike of the former character. And much to my surprise, I really enjoyed the sequence featuring Fanny’s visit to her family in Portsmouth. For once, the miniseries’ pacing seemed well paced and I enjoyed the details and production designs in the setting for this sequence. One of the actors portraying Fanny’s younger brothers turned out to be a young Jonny Lee Miller, who later portrayed Edmund in the 1999 production.

But the best aspect of “MANSFIELD PARK” turned out to be a handful of first-rate performances and Ian Adley’s costume designs. I usually do not harbor much of a high opinion of the costumes designs seen in other Jane Austen’s adaptations from the 1970s and 80s. But I cannot deny that I found Adley’s costumes not only colorful, but very elegant. I am not surprised that he earned a BAFTA TV Award nomination for Best Costume Design.

As I had stated earlier, I was also impressed by a handful of performances featured in the miniseries. One came from veteran actress Anna Massey, who superbly portrayed one of Fanny Price’s aunts, the noxious Mrs. Norris. Depended upon her sister and brother-in-law for their support, Massey’s Mrs. Norris walked a fine line between toadying behavior toward Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and her malicious tyranny over Fanny. Samantha Bond gave a subtle and complex portrayal of the oldest Bertram daughter, Maria. Bond conveyed not only the shallow and selfish aspects of Maria’s personality, but also the dilemma that her willingness to become the wife of the disappointing Mr. Rushworth put her in. I also found myself impressed by Bernard Hepton’s performance as Sir Thomas Bertarm, owner of Mansfield Park and patriarch of the Bertram family. Hepton’s Sir Thomas came off as superficially generous, intelligent and morally absolute. He seemed every inch of the ideal English landowner and gentleman. Yet, Hepton also conveyed the corruption that lurked underneath Sir Thomas’ façade – namely the man who seemed more concern with the financial suitability of his children’s spouses than any emotional regard. Hepton also revealed with great subtlety, the baronet’s egomania and tyranny in scenes that featured the character’s efforts to coerce Fanny into accepting Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal.

I will be brutally honest. I have never been a fan of the Edmund Bertram character. Despite his kindness to Fanny and occasional wit, he strikes me as a self-righteous and very hypocritical man. Whenever I think of that scene in which Edmund rejected Mary Crawford, it still makes my blood boil. But his characterization still worked, due to Nicholas Farrell’s performance. He really did an excellent job in conveying all aspects of Edmund’s personality, both the good and the bad. Despite my negative feelings regarding Edmund’s personality, Farrell made him seem very interesting. But “MANSFIELD PARK” would have never been bearable to me without Jackie Smith-Wood’s sparkling portrayal of one of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters, Mary Crawford. Like Fanny Price, many fans have either loved or disliked this character. Count me as among the former. I absolutely adored Mary – especially in the hands of the talented Ms. Smith-Wood. With great skill, the actress conveyed all aspects of Mary’s personality – her barbed sense of humor, dislike of the clergy, her talent for manipulation, her moral ambiguity, her charm, her wit, her great warmth and generosity. I suspect that the main reason I like Mary so much is that as an early 21st century woman, I find it easy to relate to her way of thinking. Smith-Wood managed to convey the modern sensibilities of Mary’s personality, while still portraying the character as a woman of the early 19th century.

Unfortunately, the bad tends to go hand-in-hand with the good in many movie and television productions. And there are aspects of “MANSFIELD PARK” that left a bad taste in my mouth – including a few performances. One performance I did not particularly care for was Angela Pleasence’s portrayal of Fanny’s other aunt, the languid Lady Bertram. I am aware that Ms. Pleasence possesses a rather high voice. But I noticed that she had exaggerated it for her portrayal of the childish and self-involved Lady Bertram. I wish she had not done this, for I found this exaggeration very annoying. And now that I think about it, I realized that Pleasence’s Lady Bertram hardly did a thing in the miniseries that allowed the plot to move forward, except use her selfishness to protect Fanny from Mrs. Norris’ spite . . . sometimes. But I cannot blame the actress. Lady Bertram is a role that has never impressed me. I have yet to find an actress who has ever done anything with the role. I truly believe that producer Betty Billingale and director David Giles selected the wrong actor to portray the charming Lothario, Henry Crawford. Robert Burbage seemed like an affable presence and he wore the costumes designed by Ian Adley very well. But his portrayal of Henry seemed wanting. I will go further and state that I found his performance by-the numbers and his acting skills rather mechanical. Burbage’s Henry did not strike me as the attractive and sexy man who managed to flutter the hearts of the Bertram sisters. Instead, I felt as if I had been watching an earnest schoolboy trying . . . and failing to behave like a rakish seducer.

Finally, I come to Sylvestra Le Touzel’s performance as the miniseries’ leading character, Fanny Price. I am not a fan of the Fanny Price character. Yes, I admire her willingness to stick to her conviction in rejecting Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal in the face of Sir Thomas’ attempts to coerce her. But Fanny also strikes me as being priggish, passive-aggressive, illusional (to a certain extent) and worst of all, hypocritical. I also dislike Edmund Bertram, but at least I was impressed by Nicholas Farrell’s portrayal of the character. On the other hand, I WAS NOT impressed by Le Touzel’s performance. I realize that she had portrayed a socially awkward and introverted character. But I have seen other actors and actresses portray similar characters with a lot more skill. Le Touzel’s performance struck me as wooden, mannered and at times, slightly hammy. Hell, she made Burbage’s performance seem positively fluid. Le Touzel eventually became a first-rate actress. I saw her very funny performance in 2007’s “NORTHANGER ABBEY”. But I wish that Billingale and Giles had cast someone with a lot more skill to portray Fanny, thirty-five years ago.

I find it odd that screenwriter Kenneth Taylor took it upon himself to be as faithful as possible to Austen’s novel, with his deletion of Sir Thomas’ role as a slaveowner being the only exception. However, he had failed to change some aspects of the novel that I consider to be very flawed. Taylor never allowed Fanny and Edmund to become self-aware of their personal failings. Edmund managed to self-flagellate himself for becoming emotionally involved with Mary. But I do not consider that much of a failing. Because of the pair’s failure to become self-aware of their failings, I believe they lacked any real character development. Taylor’s script could have assumed a third voice and criticized or mocked Fanny and Edmund’s lack of development. But it did not. The sequence featuring the “Lover’s Vows” play dragged most of Episode Three. By the time Sir Thomas had returned to Mansfield Park, I nearly fell asleep, thanks to the episode’s slow pacing. In fact, Giles and Taylor’s efforts to make “MANSFIELD PARK” faithful to the novel nearly grounded the miniseries to a halt on several occasions, almost making the entire miniseries rather dull.

More than anything, I had a problem with the miniseries’ finale. One, I never understood Edmund’s decision to reject Mary Crawford as his fiancée. Although Mary had condemned her brother and Maria Bertram Rushworth’s affair and elopement as folly, she had a plan to save the honors of both the Bertram and Crawford families. She suggested that they convince Henry and Maria to marry following the latter’s divorce from Mr. Rushworth; and have both families stand behind the couple to save face. This plan struck me as very similar to Fitzwilliam Darcy’s plan regarding Lydia Bennet and George Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice”. Why did Austen condone Mr. Darcy’s actions regarding Lydia and Wickham in one novel and condemn Mary Crawford for harboring similar plans in this story? Did Taylor, Giles or Willingale even notice the similarities between Mr. Darcy’s actions and Mary’s plans and see the hypocrisy? Apparently not. My last problem centered on Fanny and Edmund’s wedding in the final episode. How on earth did this happen? The miniseries made Fanny’s romantic feelings for Edmund perfectly clear. Yet, Edmund never displayed any romantic regard for Fanny, merely familial love. Even when revealing the end of his relationship with Mary to Fanny, he still expressed love for his former fiancée. But the next scene jumped to Fanny and Edmund’s wedding, without any explanation or revelation of their courtship. At least Patricia Rozema’s 1999 movie conveyed Edmund’s burgeoning romantic feelings for Fanny, before his final rejection of Mary. Giles and Taylor failed to the same in this miniseries.

I might as well say it. I will never harbor a high regard for “MANSFIELD PARK” . . . at least this version. Although its faithfulness to Jane Austen’s 1814 novel revealed the story in greater detail than the 1999 and 2007 movies, I believe there were scenes in which it should have been less faithful in order to overcome some of the novel’s shortcomings. The miniseries can boast a few outstanding performances from the likes of Anna Massey, Nicholas Farrell and Jackie Smith-Wood. But it was hampered by other performances, especially the wooden acting by lead actress, Sylvestra Le Touzel. In the end, “MANSFIELD PARK” proved to be a mixed bag for me.

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JANE AUSTEN’s Hero Gallery

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Below is a look at the fictional heroes created by Jane Austen in the six published novels written by her. So, without further ado . . .

 

JANE AUSTEN’S HERO GALLERY

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Edward Ferrars – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Edward Ferrars does not seemed to be highly regarded by many Jane Austen fans or literary critics. People seemed to take this mild-mannered, unambitious young man for granted and in some cases, dismiss him as weak. Although mild-mannered, I would never regard Edward as weak. I found him stalwart and willing to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions . . . even if this trait nearly led him into matrimony with the manipulative Lucy Steele.

 

1. Robin Ellis (1971) – He gave a charming and solid performance as the likeable Edward. After many viewings, I even learned to tolerate the stuttering he used for portraying Edward. Ellis and actress Joanna David had a nice chemistry, but it did not exactly blow my mind.

 

2. Bosco Hogan (1981) – I must admit that I had originally found his performance in the 1981 miniseries as somewhat tepid. But on second viewing, I realized that I had underestimated him. Despite his low-key portrayal of Edward . . . or because of it, I detected some rather interesting moments in Hogan’s performance in which he effectively conveyed Edward’s emotional state, while trying to suppress it. I am impressed.

 

3. Hugh Grant (1995) – At first, I was not impressed by Grant’s portrayal of Grant. But on later viewings, I noticed that he injected a good deal of charm and humor into his performance. And he had some pretty good lines in the movie’s first half hour. More importantly, he had great chemistry with leading lady Emma Thompson.

 

4. Dan Stevens (2008) – He conveyed more emotion and charm into his performance than his predecessors and it worked for him. And like Grant before him, he had great chemistry with his leading lady Hattie Moran.

 

 

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Colonel Christopher Brandon – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

There are some critics and fans who believe that the quiet and always loyal Colonel Brandon was wrong for the much younger Marianne Dashwood. Personally, I found him a major improvement over John Willoughby. And despite his quiet demeanor, he seemed to be just as emotional as she . . . but with more control.

 

 

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1. Richard Owens (1971) – His performance slowly grew on me, as the miniseries progressed. I thought he gave a pretty good performance and did a solid job in slowly revealing Brandon’s feelings for Marianne.

 

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2. Robert Swann (1981) – He must be the most emotional Colonel Brandon I have ever seen on screen. At least once his character’s feelings for Marianne were finally exposed. Personally, I liked his take on Brandon very much, even though most fans do not seem to care for his performance.

 

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3. Alan Rickman (1995) – He made an excellent Colonel Brandon. I was impressed by how he revealed the character’s romantic nature behind the stoic facade. I also feeling that Brandon is one of the actor’s best roles.

 

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4. David Morrissey (2008) – He is the last actor I could imagine portraying the reserved, yet passionate Colonel Brandon. And yet, not only did he did a great job in the role, he also gave one of the best performances in the miniseries.

 

 

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Fitzwilliam Darcy – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

Unless I am mistaken, Fitzwilliam Darcy must be the most popular leading man created by Jane Austen. There are times when he seems more popular than the novel’s leading character, Elizabeth Bennet. Although he is not my favorite Austen leading man, I must say that he is one of the most fascinating. However, I found his “redemption” in the story’s third act a bit too good to be true.

 

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1. Laurence Olivier (1940) – He gave a very good performance as Fitzwilliam Darcy and was properly haughty. But there were times when he displayed Darcy’s feelings for Elizabeth Bennet a little too openly . . . especially in the movie’s first half.

 

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2. David Rintoul (1980) – His Mr. Darcy was probably the most haughty I have ever seen on screen. There were moments when his portrayal seemed a bit too haughty, especially scenes in which his feelings for Elizabeth should have been obvious. But I believe he still have a first-rate performance.

 

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3. Colin Firth (1995) – He received an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 miniseries. And I believe he fully deserved it. Hell, I would have given him the award. He did a great job in portraying the character’s complexity with a balance I have never seen in the other actors who portrayed the same character.

 

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4. Matthew McFadyen (2005) – He gave a very good performance as Mr. Darcy. However, I think Joe Wright’s script emphasized a bit too much on the character’s shyness and inability to easily socialize with others.

 

 

   

Charles Bingley – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

I have always found this character to be sociable, charming and very likable. However, he has never struck me as complex as Fitzwilliam Darcy. And to be honest, I found his willingness to allow Mr. Darcy to dictate his social life a little irritating. But I suppose this should not be surprising, considering he is from a class lower than his friend.

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1. Bruce Lester (1940) – I did not find his performance particularly memorable, but I must say that he gave a charming performance as young Mr. Bingley. And he had a nice, strong chemistry with Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane Bennet.

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2. Osmund Bullock (1980) – He gave a nice, solid performance as Mr. Bingley. But I found his portrayal even less memorable than Bruce Lester’s. That is the best thing I can say about him.

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3. Crispin Bonham-Carter (1995) – I thought he gave a very warm and friendly performance as Mr. Bingley. In fact, he seemed to be the epitome of the literary character. I also enjoyed how the actor conveyed Mr. Bingley’s attempts to hide his discomfort at either the Bennet family’s behavior, or his own sisters’. My only complaint is there were times when he came off as a bit too broad and theatrical.

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4. Simon Woods (2005) – I cannot deny that he gave a first-rate performance. But I believe the latter was hampered by a script that portrayed Mr. Bingley as somewhat shy. I never had the impression from Austen’s novel that the character was a shy man.

  

Edmund Bertram – “Mansfield Park” (1814)

Oh dear. I might as well be frank. I have never liked the Edmund Bertram character. He never struck me as a completely negative personality. Edmund was capable of great kindness – especially toward his cousin Fanny Price, who was basically an outsider. He had decent moral values and he knew what he wanted to do with his life. But he was such a prig . . . and a hypocrite. Even worse, he failed to become aware of his own shortcomings and develop as a character.

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1. Nicholas Farrell (1983) – Despite my dislike of the character, he was excellent as the “Dudley Do-Right” Edmund. In fact, I think he was the best Edmund ever. And that is saying something, considering the excellent performances of the other actors who portrayed the role.

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2. Jonny Lee Miller (1999) – He also gave a first-rate performance as Edmund. More importantly, he was given a chance to convey the character’s growing attraction to his cousin, thanks to Patricia Rozema’s screenplay.

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3. Blake Ritson (2007) – After watching his performance as Edmund in the 2007 movie, I am beginning to suspect that any actor worth his salt could portray this role with great success. And that is exactly what Ritson managed to do.

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George Knightley – “Emma” (1815)

George Knightley must be the most mature Austen hero I have ever encountered – not only in age, but in temperament. But due to his sly wit and admission of his own shortcomings, he has always been a big favorite of mine.

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1. John Carson (1972) – Many have pointed out his age (45 years old at the time) as detrimental to his portrayal of Mr. Knightley. However, I was so impressed by his performance and screen chemistry with his leading lady, Doran Godwin, that I honestly did not care. I still do not care. He gave an excellent performance.

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2. Jeremy Northam (1996) – His portrayal of Knightley seemed to be the epitome of level-headed charm. And I especially enjoyed how he managed to convey Knightley’s jealousy of Emma’s friendship with Frank Churchill with some memorable brief looks.

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3. Mark Strong (1996-97) – I have to give him kudos for conveying a great deal of common sense and decency into his portrayal of Mr. Knightley. He also had very good screen chemistry with the leading lady. But . . . I found him too intense and too angry. He made a somewhat scary Mr. Knightley.

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4. Jonny Lee Miller (2009) – I really enjoyed his portrayal of the level-headed Mr. Knightley. He managed to convey a great deal of charm and wit into his performance with great ease. I am almost inclined to view his performance as my favorite.

 

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Reverend Henry Tilney – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

If I had to choose my favorite Austen hero, it would have to be him. Henry Tilney. Despite the fact that he is a clergyman, Henry is charming, clever, witty and sardonic. The type of man who could keep me in stitches forever. And he still manages to be complicated. What can I say? I adore him.

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1. Peter Firth (1986) – His portrayal of Tilney nearly ruined my love of the character. I do not blame him. Firth gave it his all and also participated in one of the best screen kisses I have ever seen in a period drama. But thanks to screenwriter Maggie Wadey, Firth’s Henry ended up as an attractive but condescending character, instead of a witty and playful one.

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2. J.J. Feild (2007) – His portrayal of Henry restored my love of the character. Field was fortunate not to be hampered by a transformed Henry. And I adored how he captured every aspect of Austen’s literary character – the charm, wit, playfulness and common sense. And Field added one aspect to his performance that I adore . . . that delicious voice.

 

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Captain Frederick Wentworth – “Persuasion” (1818)

If I must be honest, Frederick Wentworth is tied with George Knightley as my second favorite Austen hero . . . but for different reasons. He had the charm, humor and looks to attract the eye of any red-blooded female. However, his character was marred by a penchant for lingering anger and so much insecurity, especially eight years after being rejected by Anne Elliot. Wentworth has to be the most insecure Austen hero I have ever come across. That is why I find him so fascinating.

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1. Bryan Marshall (1971) – I really enjoyed how he conveyed Frederick’s extroverted sense of humor and charm. But I never got a strong sense of his character’s insecurity, along with his lingering anger and love for the leading lady, until the second half of the miniseries’ first part.

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2. Ciarán Hinds (1995) – He did an excellent job in conveying all of the complicated aspects of Frederick’s personality. However, there were moments when I felt his performance could have been a little more subtle. In the end, I still enjoyed his take on the character.

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3. Rupert Penry-Jones (2007) – Some have complained that his take on the character seemed a bit too introverted. I have to agree . . . at least in the television movie’s first half hour. But I thought he did an excellent job in portraying Frederick’s insecurity, anger and lingering love for the leading lady.