A thoroughly modern Fanny

Mansfield Park (15). Director: Patricia Rozema; starring: Frances O'Connor, Harold Pinter, Alessandro Nivola; 112 Mins
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The Independent Culture

Drippy, humourless, priggish - Fanny Price has no competition as the least endearing of all Jane Austen's heroines. Her timidity is exasperating, and her virtuousness insipid. Austen once talked of creating a heroine "whom no one but myself would like" - she meant Emma Woodhouse, but she could just as well have been referring to Fanny. Small wonder that Mansfield Park has presented such an unalluring prospect to the adapters. What audience would wish to spend two hours cheering on one of the greatest party-poopers in English literature?

The Canadian writer-director Patricia Rozema has evidently asked herself the same question, and answered it by giving Fanny Price a personality transplant. As liberty-taking goes it's pretty egregious; as a box-office expediency it's entirely warranted. The bare bones of the story have been left intact. Fanny (Frances O'Connor) is still an impoverished cousin taken to Mansfield Park to live as a charity case under the auspices of her posh uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter). Here she is banished to a cheerless attic room, patronised or neglected by most of the Bertram family and set to work as a skivvy by her bullying aunt, Mrs Norris. Her only friend is her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), destined for the church and expected to marry into his class.

Fanny uncomplainingly accepts her lot - "a quick succession of busy nothings" - but whereas in the novel she is cautious and taciturn, in the film she becomes spirited, confident, witty and, most pertinently, a writer. She is, indeed, an offshoot of Jane Austen herself. Rozema has incorporated into her adaptation material from Austen's journals and letters, bringing Fanny into closer alignment with her creator's sensibility and offering her an authorial point of view: at certain points Fanny addresses the camera directly, and makes us complicit with her anomalous position as an outsider. Gone is the shrinking wallflower of the book, replaced by a plucky lass who swishes a riding crop and gallops on horseback with a frankly unladylike exuberance. "I'm a wild beast," she tells Edmund, who can see the gleam in her eye, if not the bit between her teeth.

While this refashioning of Fanny may not win the purist's approval, it does make sense of the internal dynamics that thrum beneath the surface of Mansfield Park, and casts the appearance of Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola) and his sister Mary (Embeth Davidtz) in a rather different light. These two are the beautiful people of their day, and import a charm and gaiety otherwise in short supply chez Bertram.

In the novel, Henry's rakishness is calculated to bring out Fanny's prudish dislike, and his idea of staging theatricals among them only compounds her disapproval - that Henry should then fall in love with her is a bit baffling. What possible interest could there be? As he tells his sister, "I never was so long in company with a girl in my life - trying to entertain her - and succeed so ill!" Yet Rozema lets us see how an attraction might spring up between them - Henry is both a reader and a romantic - and Alessandro Nivola's performance makes it clear that the man's charm isn't completely counterfeit.

Mary Crawford too has a mischievous wit and amiability that might have made her a heroine in a different Austen novel; were it not for Fanny's censorious gaze we might like her even more than we do. All the same, you may not be entirely convinced by the way she hangs round smoking in the billiard room, still less by the thin squeak of sexuality when she helps Fanny unlace her bodice, soaked through in a downpour.

As advance reports have promised, this is a rather more, ahem, sensual version of Austen than we have been used to, though I don't think this should be overstated. The glimpse we get of Henry in flagrante with Fanny's married cousin is fleeting, and justified in terms of the plot. Rather more disturbing is Harold Pinter's brute of a patriarch, sizing up Fanny's blooming womanliness with something less than chaste admiration.

Pinter is also at the centre of the novel's other exercise in foregrounding. The wailing voices that young Fanny hears from a distant ship belong, she learns, to a slave cargo, a trade which turns out to be the foundation of Sir Thomas's fortune. "We all live off the profits, including you," Fanny is told, though the full force of the iniquity only hits her when she happens upon a book of slave drawings compiled by her cousin Tom, who has returned home weak with fever from the family plantation in Antigua.

Rozema draws a faint parallel between Sir Thomas's business and Fanny's own servitude - "A woman's poverty is a slavery even harsher than a man's," she says - though in terms of scale and treatment the two hardly seem comparable.

Even if one baulks at the lively revisionism of this Mansfield Park, it's hard to resist as an entertainment. Rozema and her production designer Christopher Hobbs have gone for a stripped-down look, throwing out the traditional period clutter in favour of chalk-white walls and parquet floors that create a mournful little echo. It frames the characters with a beautiful austerity, none more so than Frances O'Connor, an Australian who had already impressed in the indie comedy Love and Other Catastrophes. She catches not only Fanny's principled determination but also her watchfulness as a writer, ever alert to the moods and manners of others. (But did I really hear her tell Henry at one point to "keep his wig on"?)

Lindsay Duncan is wonderfully flaky as the opium-bibbing Aunt Bertram, whose pet pug shows more animation, and certainly more intelligence, than her owner.

I loved too the grace notes of comedy Rozema smuggles into the film, at least one of which you can perhaps imagine Austen approving with a wintry smile: a doltish husband returns to Mansfield Park from London to tell his wife that he's brought a man from The Times to do an article on their home. But his wife is not in their bedroom, and as the whiff of scandal rises in the air, the reporter, seen in the background, slyly produces a pencil and notepad. He came for a story, but he's leaving with a scoop.