During the void between Christmas and New Year, I had a big family dinner with my in-laws and my husband’s aunt mentioned not liking Jane Austen. She’d only read one book, but she couldn’t remember which one.
“I think it must have been her first novel,” she said, “because nobody in it was likeable and it was very concerned with what it thought everyone should be doing all the time.”
“Oh, that must have been Mansfield Park,” I told her.
I thought at the time that I was offering some sort of explanation. Austenheads treat Mansfield Park as if it’s that one weird uncle that everyone in the family rolls their eyes at but makes allowances for, just casually moving all the breakables into cupboards before he comes round, gets drunk and decides to do a demonstration of BMX tricks using the ironing board as a bike. Yes, he’s a bore and no, most of us don’t really like him but he’s family!
That might be a bit unfair, but I do think that, as a community, Austen fans have never really known what to do with Mansfield Park. In that way, ITV’s 2007 adaptation is spot on.
If you’re a purist about your Austentations, this one is not for you. It’s not that the film isn’t fun or enjoyable. It’s that I can’t fathom what the creators were aiming for, and I’m not convinced they knew either. Most of the decisions seem to have been made entirely cynically – they attempt to condense the entire 146,000-word plot into 88 minutes, the costumes are generically olden-days but more Victorian than Regency, and they spend all of 3 lines attempting to deal with the fact that the Bertram’s rely on slave labour – but then sometimes they do things like spend what feels like 5 minutes but is probably one just on William dancing. The end result is bland and bizarre at the same time.
I assume there were some significant budgetary constraints with this film as they cut one of
my favourite the best parts of the book. Instead of being sent home after refusing Henry Crawford’s proposal, Fanny’s simply left at Mansfield to feel lonely while everyone else goes for a visit. The best side of Henry we see is him turning up to go for a walk in the garden, where he’s presented as a better option than sitting alone on a bench. It kind of still works a bit, but it’s clear that the decision was made so that they could film the entire production on (I reckon) about a quarter of one country estate.
Low budgets are an unfortunate but understandable reality of fillm production but they often come with a load of passion from the creators. It feels like the only thing anyone was passionate about in this production was risk-minimisation. A lot of the minor characters seem to be there mostly because someone told the writer and director that they had to be, without there being any kind of vision for them. Lady Bertram’s character is pretty one-note until the very end, when it switches so hard it would be super popular in the kink scene. Julia gets so little to do that I’ve already forgotten what she looks like. But Michelle Ryan’s Maria is probably the worst done by. I’ve seen Michelle Ryan in other things so I know she can say things and move her face but she spends most of this film doing neither.
For all its faults, and partly because of them, this adaptation is still a fun watch and, given its short running time, it feels like quite an efficient way to squeeze in some Austen. It feels a bit like the microwave veggie chilli I sometimes get for lunch – not the real thing, obviously, but with its own charm and a nice reminder of tastier meals when I only have 20 minutes. It’s sometimes silly, with dolly zooms and Mary full-on flashing her ankle while taking tea, and very pretty to look at, making it perfect for when you’re tucked up with a cold or feeling a bit sorry for yourself. Watch this one with fruity teas and Mr Kipling cakes if you’ve just realised your sexy date-mate is a shallow prick.
If this film were a person, it would be your fun, quick-witted friend at high school, who offers to help you study for a literature exam and doesn’t let the fact that they’ve only read 80% of the Cliff’s notes hold them back. They’ll have plenty of convincing thoughts on a story that’s pretty engaging and is, to be fair, quite similar to the one you’re actually being tested on. And you might just get away with it, as long as none of the questions ask you or about any of the minor characters, or the several important chapters in the middle that your friend forgot to mention.
Likeability of leading lady 4/5
Billie Piper is very charismatic and absolutely nothing like Fanny Price.
Sexiness of leading man 3/5
Blake Ritson doesn’t do it for me personally, but he does brood nicely.
Sharpness of side characters 2/5
The Crawfords are both excellent and Hayley Atwell is always a treat. James D’Arcy’s sometimes plays Tom as if he’s on cocaine, which is a nice (if historically inaccurate) choice. Unfortunately, everyone else feels like they’re playing the minimum viable product version of their character.
Austenly vibes 2/5
The final scene is Fanny and Edmund inventing the Waltz.
The costumes are all wrong but fun to look at, which sums up a lot about this film, and the four leads are engaging enough to pull off what might otherwise have been a shitshow.
Sexiness of leading lady 4/5
Billie Piper in corsetry is a strong reason to abandon the empire line.
Likeability of leading man 3/5
We’ve all known someone (or been someone) who makes a big deal of valuing substance and keeps falling for sexy, charming rogues anyway. At least Edmund realises his mistake. And Blake Ritson manages to avoid being stuffy, which is an achievement.
Faithfulness to the book 2/5
It’s recognisable, just.
Modern sensibilities 3/5
This is the Austen marriage I’m the least on board with. While I can accept marrying your cousin was something normal and fine in Austen’s time, Fanny and Edmund have grown up together more like siblings. Once you get past that, their actual relationship seems like it’d be pretty healthy and equal, especially as it’s portrayed in this version. But still…eww.
The Bertrams are rich because of slave labour and this film makes the briefest effort to acknowledge that but stops short of actually engaging with it beyond a short, dropped-in exchange that has no bearing on the rest of the plot or characterisation. It feels like they wanted credit for having condemned an atrocity without actually doing any work.
Mansfield Park has some of the most of-its-time content in all of Austen (I hope we’re all suitably shocked by the thought of ladies play-acting!) but it’s also got some of the most relevant stuff, too. 90% of women* have experienced pressure to date some guy just because her friends like him and don’t want to see him rejected. He’d be so happy, people think, if only she’d just stop being selfish and give up her agency! Henry Crawford is the original that guy. It’s done so well, even I kind of want Fanny to give him a chance when he turns up in Portsmouth, despite knowing what a dickweed he turns out to be. With that entire part of the plot missing, this arc isn’t nearly as effective but it’s still some hashtag-relatable-content.
*I utterly stand by this made up statistic.