A Posting on
the Filmed Versions
of "Emma", "Persuasion",
and "Mansfield Park",
December 16, 1997
While there is only one excellent filmed version of Pride and Prejudice [P&P-A&E], there are two superb versions of Emma ...
[Emma-BBC] Starring Doran Godwin and John Carson. Produced by Martin Lisemore, screenplay by Denis Constanduros. (1972)
[Emma-A&E] Starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. Produced by Sue Birtwistle, screenplay by Andrew Davies. (1996)
... and one passable if flawed version,
[Emma-96] Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Produced by Patrick Cassavetti, Donna Gigliotti, Donna Grey, Steven Haft, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein; dramatized by Douglas McGrath. (1996)
All three portrayals of the Emma character are fine interpretations, but a special achievement award should go to Doran Godwin (Emma Woodhouse, Emma-BBC). While I am at it, similar Male Voices awards to Donald Eccles (Mr. Woodhouse, Emma-BBC), Samantha Morton (Harriet Smith, Emma-A&E), Raymond Coulthard (Frank Churchill, Emma-A&E), and Prunella Scales (Miss Bates, Emma-A&E). (Everyone knows that Jane Austen took pains with her minor characters and so I am appreciative when film makers take pains as well.) You can express your own preferences by marking this ballot provided for that purpose.
Some of the performances in [Emma-BBC] are flawed but the entire cast of Sue Birtwhistle's [Emma-A&E] is excellent. Apparently, Ms. Birtwhistle obtained sufficient financing to bring in some talented actresses and actors for these roles, and the extra expenditure paid dividends. Perhaps the cast of [Emma-96] is excellent as well but we will never know because the script was so poor. Surely, this cast is the most uniformly beautiful (I mean, the producers went so far as to contract with Greta Scacchi to play the role of Mrs. Weston).
Doran Godwin as Emma
I must say though, that my favorite version is [Emma-BBC] because I think they got the Emma-Knightly relationship exactly right. I think of that relationship as one in which Knightley gets exasperated, loses his temper, and then crawls back to Emma to repair the relationship—and he succeeds, but only after Emma makes him eat some worms. I believe that the Knightley of [Emma-A&E] is too harsh and the Knightley of [Emma-96] is too compliant. Also, I must admit that I greatly admire Doran Godwin. Finally, the BBC version is twice as long as the others and so is better suited to an interpretation of a Jane Austen vision.
I hasten to add that I found Jeremy Northam's portrayal of Knightley [Emma-96] to be a pleasant enough interpretation; his Knightley's relationship with this Emma is gentle and loving. The problem for me is that his is not exactly Jane Austen's Knightley.
By the way, I suspect that Northam's portrayal of a country dancer is the correct one, I mean it seems to be the interpretation I have read about. He is, by far, the best male dancer in a filmed version of a Jane Austen novel and the fact that he is teamed with Paltrow makes him doubly effective. There is just one mistake (this mistake is made in all films except [MP-BBC]); my understanding is that the men, in that period, were expected to wear gloves while dancing.
I want to devote some space to a discussion of Samantha Morton's portrayal of Harriet Smith [Emma-A&E]. There is something important and interesting there—very interesting. The usual tendency in the filmed adaptations of Emma, is to portray Harriet as a silly cow ([Emma-96] is the worst example of that). But that interpretation renders two things implausible, Emma's initial interest in Harriet, and the possibility that Emma would ever imagine Knightley in love with Miss Smith.
Some will say that Miss Smith is less threatening than Jane Fairfax and it is for that reason that Emma prefers her company. That was my take on things until I encountered Ms. Morton's interpretation. (I never know whom to credit for such things, the actress? the director? the screenwriter?) Ms. Morton plays Harriet Smith as inexperienced and undereducated, to be sure, but with a natural and underlying grace, intelligence, and beauty. We are shown that it is her sweet and compliant nature and her sincere admiration and love for Emma that leads her temporarily astray. I remember thinking, yes of course, this Harriet truly might be the "natural daughter of a baronet"! And indeed, why could not Knightley be in love with her?
I did something, quite by accident, that changed my response to Emma Woodhouse and I want to recommend the same action to you. The Ann Radcliffe novel Romance of the Forest is mentioned quite prominently in Jane Austen's Emma. Radcliffe is the author of gothic novels and was not thought very highly of by Jane Austen. Jane would often signal us about certain negative aspects of a character's nature by the degree to which she is attached to any of Radcliffe's novels. The best examples of that occur in Northanger Abbey, but the device is also used in Emma. I thought that I was to understand the superficiality of Emma's own education by the fact that she recommends Romance of the Forest to Harriet (and, indirectly, to Mr. Robert Martin). However, I was determined to read at least one thing of Radcliffe's so I picked up Romance of the Forest . It was tough going, but I made my way through it and discovered something at the very end. I discovered that my original take on Emma Woodhouse was partly correct; but, there was something else to be understood. Emma had a genuinely romantic nature and was trying to do something genuinely good in this world by restoring Harriet to what Emma might think of as Harriet's rightful status. For you see, that is exactly what happens to the heroine in The Romance of the Forest.
When I first read Emma, I disliked Emma Woodhouse to a high degree; but, that is no longer true now that I understand her better. I think that some readers dislike Emma because of her explicit class-consciousness. Perhaps some don't notice that Knightley suffered from the same affliction: he thought that it would be best if Harriet remembered her proper station in life and married his tenant. For me, a crucial scene in Emma occurred in that conversation between Knightley and Emma at the Crown Inn ball. Knightley demonstrated an awakening to his own class-consciousness and admitted that Miss Smith's qualities placed her above a gentlewoman such as Mrs. Elton. Jane Austen does one of her double twists with a half-gainer when she expresses her take on these things by allowing Harriet to marry for love, to marry a man with merit—to marry THE TENANT. Don't you agree that if she had guided Harriet into a marriage in the upper class, Jane Austen would be demonstrating a quite different attitude? But, perhaps all this is too subtle and too modern for our own generation.
The worst parts of [Emma-96] are the screenplay and the directing, and Douglas McGrath is responsible for both aspects of the production. That failure brings me a certain amount of pain because McGrath is an American, but there it is. I saw him interviewed on TV, seated alongside Ms Paltrow, for a promotion of the film. I believe that McGrath is good man with all the right intentions, but he misunderstands the true nature of Jane Austen's work. In that interview, he said that he had received much of his early experience working with Woody Allen, and he thought that good preparation because both Allen and Austen were interested in the mild events surrounding the upper middle classes. That is his first serious error in judgment; Woody Allen writes comedies and Jane Austen did not, and Jane Austen did not portray neurotic city dwellers. You don't have to be terribly astute to perceive the Woody Allen influence in the directing and in the screenplay, and that is downright aggravating.
Next, McGrath explained how one can do something that, in fact, is impossible to do. He explained the way in which one can take a Jane Austen novel and compress it into a 90 minute film. He began by writing what happens on each page in the margin, and then he compiled a long list of events, and then he merely eliminated the redundancies—and there you have it. REDUNDANCIES! There are no such things in a Jane Austen novel. Her novels were parsimonious and composed of a web of interlocking events with an irresistible logic when taken as a whole. Remove one link and things will surely fall apart—and they surely did in [Emma-96].
The Woody Allen version of Mr. Woodhouse is disgusting; he calls his own grandchild a "source of infection" in this film. This Jane-Austen character is an hypochondriac, but one that was as much concerned about the health of his grandchild (or even the health of a horse) as he was about his own. How could an Emma so love the Woody Allen version of her father? The film doesn't make sense. The worst choice of all is where McGrath makes Frank Churchill the author of that vicious rumor about Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon—Frank instead of Emma. What is that all about? Is this the current fashion in which someone is not allowed to mention the fallibility of even a fictional woman? If you can't stand such a suggestion, then you had better avoid Jane Austen's novels.
And now a discussion of the Gypsy scene—my favorite thing! Of all the versions of this scene now available, Jane Austen's is the most modern by far. In the novel, Harriet Smith and a girl friend were walking near the commons, where they were approached by a group of Gypsy children. The children simply begged for some money; but, the girls seemed to have some preconceptions about Gypsies and so they panicked. The friend ran away and Harriet became so flustered that she tripped and fell. The children were a bit resentful about running up against an attitude, and so they had no difficulty laughing at Harriet's dilemma. At this point, Frank Churchill arrived on the scene to "rescue" the distressed damsel. OK, very nice as this sets up some important plot points and demonstrates Jane Austen's perfect understanding of some of the fine points of poor race relations.
That scene is best portrayed in [Emma-BBC]. Andrew Davies's portrayal [Emma-A&E] is a bit odd; in this version, two adult Gypsy women unleashed a hoard of Gypsy children in a lemming-like dash across a field and then over the two girls. I have no idea what is supposed to be happening in this version; but, at least the child actors gave the impression that they had a lot of fun making the scene. And then there is McGrath's version. There must not be such a thing as a Gypsy Anti-Defamation League; because, if there was such a thing, it would have picketed [Emma-96]. In that filmed version, the children were replaced by gang of adults and the friend was replaced by Emma herself. The encounter was then transformed into a mugging and a physical assault—both woman were thrown to ground and were badly man-handled. Imagine that—the leading gentlewoman of the village physically assaulted in her own community! What would have been the aftermath of that? If this had been an historical event rather than fictional, the English of today might think of Highbury in the same manner we think of Wounded Knee.
Vote Today! Vote for an All-Star team of film actors from the various versions of Emma. This election actually has rules! Here are the results to date.
O.K., so why didn't Jane Austen marry? I don't know, but I think about that question a lot. She seems so completely heterosexual to me that there can be no simple explanation. Let me examine two possibilities with you. The first is best expressed if I can get you to imagine a potential suitor of Jane Austen. Think about it, he is about to enter a house where two of the brothers are Oxford grads and two are graduates of the navel academy and are war-heroes. The father and three of the brothers are considered extremely handsome and the entire family is considered the best-educated group of individuals in the environs. The only other brother, Edward, doesn't have any of the same credentials, except that he had this Frank-Churchill sort-of an arrangement in which he is the heir to the very great fortune of a distant cousin.
The Austen home must have seemed like some mythical place filled with beautiful faces and forms, and with famous and stylish uniforms. Surely, one would have thought the sight to be the most sublime experience possible, only to encounter a still more sublime moment when the conversation began. (Everyone said that she was as accomplished at conversation as she was at writing.) Now, Jane may be the sweet, witty, and pretty object of our attention, but to her brothers, she was baby sister. Go ahead, make a false move! And, if a suitor could avoid that pitfall, what was he going to talk about?
Another thing is that, because of her very mind and nature, Jane Austen was going to have high standards and those examples she was living with weren't going to lessen her sensibilities and expectations—on the contrary. Things might have been different if they had lived in London where there must have been a number of strong, determined men that could have swum up that rapid stream, but the Austens didn't live in London. Finally, the extreme and rapid upward mobility of the brothers meant that there was no economic pressure on the sister to marry.
My other explanation—my more strongly held—is an opinion shared by some others, but one that is far from universally accepted. I strongly suspect that Persuasion is slightly autobiographical and the name of the Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen's own life is Tom Lefroy, and the name of the Lady Russell in Jane Austen's own life is Tom Lefroy's aunt, Madam Lefroy. That story begins in Jane Austen's nineteenth year when Tom Lefroy was in the neighborhood to visit his aunt and uncle. Madam Lefroy was a woman of grace and education and someone who fully recognized the talents of young Jane very early on. This led to a very firm admiration and attachment on Jane's part. The nephew had just taken his first degree at an Irish university and was on his way to London to study the law in preparation for the career that his family had mapped out for him. In my humble opinion, Jane was in love with him, although I readily admit that one must read between the lines of her letters from that period in order to come to that conclusion. I also believe that Tom returned that love but the time wasn't right; there would not have been enough money and his family was depending upon the development of his career to pull the rest of them up with him. The Lefroy family became alarmed at the growing attachment and he was sent away and never invited back again. There was a similar disapprobation in the Austen family—sister Cassandra went so far as to scold Jane (Cassandra always was a bit of a proto-Victorian). As it turned out, Tom had every bit of the talent that his family claimed for him and he had a very successful career, at one point rising to the title of Chief Justice of Ireland.
All of this has too many of the echoes of Persuasion to be ignored; there is just one difference, Tom Lefroy married a wealthy Irish woman two years after leaving Jane's neighborhood—faithless, fickle Tom! However, even if my suspicions turn out to be correct, the Male Voices community need not hound him into perdition, he probably suffered enough.
What do you think, does the pleasure we receive from Jane Austen's novels come at the cost of her suffering? If so, and if given a choice, then I give up those pleasures, I will not have them! I know that without the novels, there would have been no need of biographies (or web sites), and there would no longer be any knowledge of the obscure happy wife of an obscure Irish official. I freely give up that knowledge as well, I will not extract such a price. You know, I suspect that bliss has diverted as much genius as hardship has suppressed; I mean, have you ever wondered about all the woman and all their genius that is unknown to us?—will never be known to us? Except, why do you restrict these musings to women? Are you so out of touch?
The story of Tom Lefroy and Jane Austen is best presented by Deirdre Le Faye [LeFaye-89, Chapter 7]. However, Ms. Le Faye herself would not agree with my assessment. Ms. Le Faye knows a lot more about Jane Austen than she writes in this biography, so perhaps more can be said about this matter. She merely passes off the Lefroy affair by noting that, soon after, Jane wrote Pride and Prejudice, the "happiest of all her novels". Well, I find a good deal less happiness there and I would point to a conversation between Elizabeth Bennet and her Aunt Gardiner in which the aunt scolds Elizabeth for encouraging the penniless Wickham. Elizabeth has a polite but strong reply and one can't help wonder if this reply was also intended for Madam Lefroy and the Austen family.
Jane Austen was dying when she wrote Persuasion, her last completed novel. She was dying prematurely and she knew it. This certainly might have been a time when Jane Austen would feel like making a statement. (In fact, I believe— this is kind of crazy—I believe Jane Austen makes a cameo appearance in Persuasion—you know, the sort of thing Alfred Hitchcock would do.) If you inform yourself about the Lefroy affair, the novel will take on a whole new meaning for you. And if you inform yourself about Addison's disease, the sight of Mrs. Smith will grab your heart; but, that will be nothing compared to your reaction to Anne Elliot's speech about the constancy of a woman's love "after all hope is gone".
Amanda Root as Anne Elliot
To me, Persuasion, is somber, profoundly moving, passionate, and wonderful. I will never understand why people don't think of Jane Austen as dramatic and deeply passionate! I guess it is because she didn't rattle away like other authors, she refused to write in the "bow-wow" style. Maybe it is her own fault that she is misunderstood, she never could stifle that sense of humor. Also, I think most readers need something like an insanely pyromaniac ex-wife hidden away in an attic—improbable as that may be—in order to be moved. Not I— it seems to me that passion is in the heart and in the mind and not in the volume control.
I recommend both filmed versions of Persuasion; but, I believe that Amanda Root's interpretation of Anne Elliot [P-95] is at least as important as Jennifer Ehle's interpretation of Elizabeth Bennet. The entire cast is very fine and the script is very fine as well. Except—you guessed it—I do have a few tiny complaints to make about the script. First of all, the writing falls apart at the end—too hurried, too cute. Also, Jane Austen's Mr. Elliot is rich, the rich widower of a rich wife; for some reason, the screen writer (Nick Dear) choose to make him poor. So, as always happens when a writer changes an element of a Jane Austen novel, the logic breaks down completely. Why would a mercenary man in debt scheme to marry a penniless daughter of a penniless man? And why would he want to inherit a seriously encumbered estate if he could not afford to support it? (I don't get it; if one does not love logic, "nature", and "probability", then doesn't he miss a great deal when reading a Jane Austen novel?)
My major complaint is that the character of Lady Russell is altered too much for the film. (Incidentally, Susan Fleetwood is excellent in this role as is Fiona Shaw in the role of Mrs. Admiral Croft.) In Nick Dear's script, Lady Russell takes on the aspect of a wicked witch of the west. In Jane Austen's version, Lady Russell was the good friend of Anne's mother, and was trying hard to give the daughters the best possible advice after the death of the mother. Anne remained appreciative of, and grateful for that effort, and makes a speech to that effect near the end of the novel. This is much like Jane Austen's undying regard for Madam Lefroy long after that woman's untimely accidental death, and long after that woman had done much to separate Jane from Tom Lefroy.
Jane Austen began Mansfield Park with Fanny Price's banishment; Fanny, the child, was sent away from the home of her parents and siblings. At the beginning, the alienation was physical and later, as an adult and during the visit to her parents' home, she learned that the alienation ran deep within her and was permanent. Her acceptance at the Bertram estate was grudging and never really complete. Fanny was not allowed a stake in anything; she had nothing to risk and no expectations were allowed or imagined. It could only have been Fanny that first perceived and best anticipated the effects of impropriety at Mansfield because it was only she that was uninvited and uninvolved. Fanny Price is the most perfectly drawn of all of Jane Austen's many perfect creations.
Incidentally, Jane Austen is hardly one to censure the production of a play—Miss Austen was not a Victorian. Jane often participated with her family in the production of plays as she was growing up, and she and her brother Henry often attended the theater in London together. No, what Fanny and Edmund were objecting to, in the dramatic production at Mansfield Park, is that the cast members were using this device to circumvent the proprieties of their society. And, their worst fears were realized when the familiarity that Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram developed in the rehearsals, lead inevitably to adultery.
Another principle explored in Mansfield Park is that of the importance of "education". By that I mean education in the fullest sense of the word, in the sense that it is rarely used today.
Until 1999, there was only one filmed version of Mansfield Park [MP-BBC] and it was merely passable, its chief virtue being that the script remains close to the book—a very great virtue indeed. I recommend that you view it, but not until you are hopelessly in love with Jane Austen. There aren't many good performances in the film but there are a few; Anna Massey is superb as Aunt Norris, and Jackie Smith-Wood does an excellent job as Mary Crawford. (Alison Fiske achieves a striking presence as Fanny Price's mama; a part, however, that must be classified as something even less than a minor role.)
Actually, someone else may have produced a version of Mansfield Park. Rent a copy of the video Metropolitan, (Whit Stillman, 1990) and see what you think. Jane Austen is mentioned in a number of places in the film and you will think that is the reason I recommend it, but that is not the case. I think that Whit Stillman has actually succeeded in writing a Jane-Austen-like novel himself. If you agree, we will make him a Male Voices Hero. First of all, the social class is right (upper middle), no one is so very neurotic, the ending is happy, and the events are mild; except the environment is urban. The Jane-Austen heroine is a man, Tom Townsend. I mean this character actually suffers the same type of financial dislocation that Jane often visited on her main characters; except, the device in this case is a bit different, the father has divorced and disowned the family. The tone and the level of the humor are almost exactly right. And, there is an echo of Mansfield Park in the "game of truth" which takes the place of the dramatic production. And Fanny Price is there. Even a discussion of the proper way to introduce a young gentlewoman into society is a theme. However, the main themes are propriety, candor, and what does it all mean? I much admire Whit Stillman's work (you may know of his more recent and more popular Barcelona).
The Modern Leni Riefenstahl: Patricia Rozema
bashes the males of Mansfield Park
The filmmaker Patricia Rozma recently produced her own personal version of Mansfield Park. It is a travesty. I think Ms. Rozema needs a trusted advisor, one who would be in a position to tell her the truth about her sexism and could occasionally say that one critical thing that might lead her to use her latent talents to produce good films instead of exercises in gender-war, hate mongering.
I believe that advisor would have to speak with a male voice. I can say that with great confidence because it is obvious that if Jane Austen could not impact upon her in this way then what woman could? Jane Austen was always the consummate gender-neutral author; and, in this particular novel, related all that was good in family men. That same Jane Austen who extolled the family tie—"the children of the same family, the same blood". And the same Jane Austen, who lived in a loving and beloved relationship with her brothers, those brothers who educated, encouraged, and supported her, and who were invaluable aids in publishing her novels; no, not even Jane Austen's voice could be heard through the prejudice of this film—this worst example of male bashing.
Jane Austen herself is as much the target of the Rozemas of the world as are the male characters in her novels. A supremely intelligent and uniquely talented woman who takes even a neutral position must be treated as a traitor. There is nothing subtle in Rozema's approach, so one can write out, in explicit detail, the many alterations that the filmmaker made in the story in order to completely reverse Jane Austen's intent. That is exactly what I attempt with this posting.
To discuss this film, one must concentrate on the film maker and that is more true in this particular instance than normally. Here is a link to excerpts from an interview with the writer-director Patricia Rozema. And here are links to a number of film reviews; first from The Globe and Mail and the National Post, and then from the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Constitution, and the New York Observer. Finally, here is Julie P.'s review that appeared at Amazon.com. Ms. Rozema's preference is to make films of the lesbian experience and she is a self-proclaimed nihilist. How is it that a nihilist was selected for any responsibility on a filmed version of any classic?—That is a great mystery.
The film is well done in some ways; the cast is superb and the cinematography is wonderful. However, one can also praise the technical accomplishments of the fascist filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl or the racist filmmaker D.W. Griffith. The comparison with Riefenstahl may seem unfair at first because the crimes of the Nazis are so much greater than those of feminists. However, the comparison with Leni Riefenstahl, strange to say, might not be fair to Riefenstahl either. I say that because she did not deal in the propaganda of hatred; rather, Riefenstahl played to her countrymen's foolishly romantic and grotesquely narcissistic self-image. And, of course, of the two women Riefenstahl is the superior artist. Still, it can be said that both women make films for an audience conditioned by stereotypes, hate messages, and otherwise prepared for biological determinism. Men are to Rozema exactly what the Jews are to Nazis, the source of all that is evil. Without these political influences—these atmospheres of bigotry—neither woman would have much of an audience.
I suspect that in Rozema's initial survey of the characters in the novel, she immediately was able to focus on her target—the alpha male of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram. In order to bash him, Rozema had to completely reverse the character of the man that Jane Austen painted for us. Jane Austen's Sir Thomas is as a river to his extended family; it is his generosity that raises up the Price family, for example. In the novel, Sir Thomas makes the crucial mistake of trusting too much to his wife and her sister for the education of the young family members. Rozema converts him into a brutal slave owner and a sexual deviant.
Early in the film, Sir Thomas comes upon Fanny, leers at her, and then gives her a fatherly hug by pressing his body into hers. Fanny is mortified. This may be one of Rozema's favorite ways to bash men because she repeats the action in the forty or so seconds that the alpha male of Portsmouth is on screen. Fanny is visiting her family after many years absence, when her father insists that she turn about slowly so that he can get a good look at her body. Then comes another Rozema—excuse me—another "fatherly" hug. There is one unintentionally funny aspect to all this. Rozema makes Sir Thomas and Mr. Price sleazy with their inappropriate touching of Fanny; however, she is quoted as saying that she personally enjoyed making those two scenes where Mary Crawford grabs Fanny Price in order to get her hands on Miss Price's body—that's ironic!
Apparently, Rozema found the character of Fanny's brother, William Price, to be inconvenient. This is a young, vital male, fighting to make his way in the world against great odds. Another problem for Rozema must have been that William's chief benefactor was Sir Thomas, in still another example of that man's frequent kindness to the extended family. Although, the greatest difficulty of all for our feminist filmmaker would have the mutual love between Fanny and William that Jane Austen emphasizes throughout. William was Fanny's protector at home and her only correspondent during her exile. Fanny was William's advocate at Mansfield Park. William, of course, is modeled after Jane Austen's own brothers, modeled both in circumstances and in family affections. Jane Austen even assigned William to one of her own brother's ships and immortalized a gift from her younger brother by inventing the same gift for William Price to give to Fanny in the novel. But then, this nihilist filmmaker knew what to do with a William Price—she aborted him. There is no William Price in her film. Fanny Price's correspondent becomes instead—you will never guess—a sister.
This filmmaker made major alterations in the beta male, Tom Bertram, the son of Sir Thomas. Jane Austen's Tom is modeled, I think, after her brother Edward's sons of whom she complained that they were irresponsible and spent too much time preoccupied with the luxuries available to them. Austen's Tom Bertram is not evil, he is simply self-involved and dissipated. (Jane Austen's opinion of these nephews would later change dramatically and become far more favorable—One, William, would serve her gallantly during her last illness and she would love him for it.) Rozema's Tom is quite something else; the celluloid Tom is resentful and petulant to his father; his dissipation seems related to a depression caused by family dysfunction. Rozema also makes him an artist, an impressionist artist which means he is nearly a hundred years before his time. Some may have wondered about the reason for this talent of Rozema's Tom, but I can easily explain Rozema's transparent motive, but that will come later in his posting.
Incidentally, Rozema completely gutted the role of Julia Bertram and then arranged for one of the best young film actresses in the world to play Julia's part. (This is the greatest waste of talent since Jennifer Ehle contracted to play the wife of Oscar Wilde.) Ironically, this is the very actress who would have been perfect in the role of Fanny Price!
The word "slavery" appears once in Mansfield Park, the novel, but that single instance seems to completely contradict the view presented in the film. In nearly the opening scene of the film we are treated to the sight of a slave ship in an English harbor. In that scene, the child Fanny Price is being transported to Mansfield Park, unescorted, while we hear the screams of the "black cargo" in the background. Ms. Rozema places a great deal of emphasis on the odious practice in the film. In fact, her version of the novel seems preoccupied with slavery and its evils. That seems admirable, but don't be fooled, her sole purpose for manufacturing this theme is to smear Jane Austen's Sir Thomas. I will not be so kind as to suggest that this was Rozema's self-delusion. I will give her credit for intelligence much as I see the same quality in Leni Riefenstahl.
And now we can understand why Rozema made Tom Bertram a painter. Tom accompanied his father to the West Indies, and there he made some sketches of what he saw. Clever!—How better to give the audience those images of the treatment of slaves? Many of the sketches are of gangs of men restraining and raping female slaves. But Rozema saved the best sketches for the last. The penultimate is of Sir Thomas beating a slave with a cat-of-nine-tales while he wears a wildly sadistic expression. The final image of Sir Thomas shows him forcing a slave into a position of oral sex. Rozema's claim that she is concerned about slavery is nonsense. Her target is Sir Thomas, and her real goal, all along, is to show that sketch of her demented version of Sir Thomas raping a slave.
Patricia Rozema is an uncomplicated sexist.
There are some scenes in that film that gave me a moment's hope. I particularly remember the scene when the young Crawfords are introduced to the young Bertrams. You will have to see it to understand it because it is all done visually. The acting and Rozema's direction were brilliant, and so you can see all that Jane Austen intended. Rozema is talented. There is also a wonderful dance sequence which is cut off far too quickly, perhaps because it was of boys dancing with girls.
Ms. Rozema allowed the Fanny-Price character to break the fourth wall, and that might have proved a very useful device, a substitute for the narration in the novel. Instead, Rozema adopted several of Jane Austen's letters and juvenilia for that purpose in the film. There are other examples of Jane Austen trivia thrown into the mix. (Perhaps this was the screenwriter's attempt to cover her own signature track-marks on the script.) This screenwriter even took an incident out of Jane Austen's own life, her abortive acceptance of a marriage proposal, and crammed that into the film! Fanny Price repeats the details of that unhappy experience for some unimaginable reason. My view is that there is more than enough content in the novel without dragging in other material. To add material in this way is to show disrespect—perhaps a misunderstanding—for the novel. The net effect is interesting in one way; Rozema thereby converted Fanny Price into another Elizabeth Bennet. Now, Jane Austen invented Elizabeth Bennet, so if it had been Jane Austen's intent to produce another such character, she would have done so. Clearly, Fanny Price is quite another character, a character that is, perhaps, beyond Rozema's ken. Patricia Rozema is no Jane Austen.
In the novel, Henry Crawford impresses Fanny with his reading of Shakespeare; in the film, the reading is from Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey. That seems acceptable because the passage is very moving and, as usual, the cast members do an excellent job in that scene. Actually, Maria Bertram does make one brief reference to that passage in the novel,
"... 'I cannot get out' as the starling said."
The quote was made in jest when her party was confronted by a locked gate. (The passage expresses Sterne's—and my own—feelings about caged pets, a starling in this case.) The passage was included in the film, in part, to echo the plight of slaves, but Rozema had another purpose in mind. Maria does repeat that phrase in the film, but under very different circumstances. In the film, Edmund burst into his sister Maria's (now Mrs. Rushworth) bedroom to find her and Henry Crawford in flagrante delicto. (Imagine that, adultery in her parents' home!—imagine that, Edmund bursts into her room!) Henry Crawford is a gentleman so he climbed off while Maria made her explanation. Her excuse was that she was trapped in her marriage, "I can't get out, I can't get out." Poor Baby! Well, the starling didn't put herself into that cage, in spite of Sir Thomas's warnings, and the poor bird certainly didn't rush into that confinement out of avarice. Some may compliment Rozema for setting up that scene with the reading by Henry Crawford, but who will praise her logic? Patricia Rozema is no Jane Austen.
Rozema trumps Jane Austen in still another way, the filmmaker made every woman unhappy in her marriage. Lady Bertram was so distraught that she became an opium addict—the celluloid Lady Bertram is a stoner! When Fanny went to visit her family at Portsmouth, her celluloid mother took her aside to complain of her marriage. And even Aunt Norris found her husband dreary; when he died in the film, he fell face foward into his soup while his bored wife sighed and rang her bell for someone to come clean up the mess. This is all played for laughs of course, but I wonder if Rozema would have made a chuckle out of the death of a female character. It would be fun to know what Jane Austen's reaction might have been to that tasteless scene. Well, at least there would be the marriage of Fanny and Edmund—umm, not exactly—the last we see of them in the film, they are walking away as Edmund congratulates her because he has just heard that she is about to publish her first novel. (The unintended hilarity there is that Fanny is about to publish—get this—you are going to love this—Fanny is about to publish Jane Austen's Juvenilia!) I mean it is not at all clear that they are to marry.
Ms. Rozema spent so much time on her male bashing and extraneous matter, that she had to stuff everything else into a few scenes. I mean the filmmaker had to find some way to justify the name of her film. An irony here is that only those of us familiar with the novel can make any sense of the film—it is up to us to supply the details. For example, there are some hurried scenes involving a horse and, yes, we Janeites know what was going on there, but does anyone else? In the novel, Mary Crawford is made complex by her intermittent kindness to Fanny. Rozema didn't save herself any time for that, so her Mary is made complex only through her homo-eroticism. In the novel, Mary reveals her true nature in a private letter to Fanny and in a private conversation with Edmund. Again, Rozema had no patience for all that subtlety, so Mary Crawford delivers the contents of both her conversation with Edmund and her letter to Fanny in a single speech to the entire Bertram family. They were astounded and so was I.—Talk about a non-sequitur!
Finally, let us return to the subject of slavery.
The single mention of slavery in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is interesting and seems to contradict Patricia Rozema. Here it is: Edmund and Fanny are in private conversation and Edmund is trying, as usual, to bolster her confidence and to draw her out.
" '... You must really begin to harden yourself to the idea of being worth looking at.—You must try not to mind growing up a pretty woman.' ... 'Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more.—You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.'
'But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did you not hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?'
'I did and I was in hopes the question would be followed by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of further.' ... "
Chapter III, Volume 2
That's it!—there is no other mention of slavery in the novel. This passage casts great doubt on Rozema's contention that slavery existed at the Bertram holdings in the West Indies. The reactions of Fanny, Edmund, and Sir Thomas simply seem all wrong for that possibility. (Incidentally, one of our community members passed along some interesting information that sheds some light on that trip of the Bertrams to Antigua; here is the link to that.)
One of the great dangers of writing about times other than your own, is that you may not get the attitudes right and that is a transgression. Jane Austen warned one of her own nieces about that very thing. Patricia Rozema did not heed that advice and so she blundered; she blundered about the way the folks at Mansfield Park might have thought about slavery. The above quote supports my contention and I will now supply more argument. I will discuss Rozema's blunder after I give you a taste of the truth. This next quote is from Jane Austen's Emma; this is a conversation between Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton that occurs at a large dinner party. Mrs. Elton formerly lived at her brother-in-law's estate near Bristol. His name was Suckling. (As usual, there are about five different things going on in this passage, but I am determined to focus on only the relevant part!) Now, in Jane Austen's day, the transatlantic slave trade was controlled by the British in ships operating out of Bristol and Liverpool, and Mrs. Elton, as you will see, is very self-conscious about that fact. Jane is moaning and groaning about the fact that she might have to go to work and she starts things off in this way:
" '... When I am determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.'
'Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.'
'I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave trade' said Jane; 'governess-trade was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.' ... "
Chapter XVII, Volume 2
To me, it is crystal clear that the acceptable opinion amongst the English gentry was that of the abolitionist! However, Rozema paints a quite different picture. In her misinterpretation, the society is either comfortable with or accommodated to slavery. The worst example is Sir Thomas—quelle surprise!—who talks enthusiastically, and openly in company, about his slaves and even suggests that it would be a nice thing if he brought one of them back to the Park. Ironically, in a scene where Rozema wanted to show Fanny's disgust with slavery, she managed to prove quite something else: After Fanny makes a small complaint to Edmund, he reminds her that slavery, "pays for the party at Mansfield Park." Well, that stops her and they never discuss the matter again!
Before you explain to me that there must have been something wrong with those people, they could not have been the abolitionists that Jane Austen pretends, or else there would have been no slave trade, let me stop you with this. Think about who pays for the party at your house, think about all that exploited labor in the world today. Much of it borders on involuntary servitude and is used to produce many of your—our goods. You and I stand against these well-known and infamous practices and, yet, they continue to exist. I am not thinking about only that slave labor that paid for the party at Leni Riefenstahl's house, I am referring to that involuntary servitude used to produce your clothing and electronics and to gather your food. Every ethnic group is given its turn; early in this century it was the daughters of Jewish families, newly emigrated from Germany and Russia, and now it is the misfortune of others to pay for the party at Patricia Rozema's house. No, before we come down too hard on Jane Austen's neighbors, we should remember, "Doctor, heal thyself!"
I haven't put all the bad eggs into one basket. You can continue on to the next page of this posting for discussion of those other perversions, the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice and Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility.
Of course, there is always
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