Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Mansfield Park (1999) combines Jane Austen’s novel with elements of her letters and journals to turn heroine Fanny Price (played by Frances O’Conner) into a woman of self-possession and confidence. The strong-willed, creative girl in an impoverished family is sent to live with snooty rich relatives, where she is more than a servant but less than an equal and can be found stitching or reading in a corner at all functions, shuttled out of the way and ignored by all but her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller). Until a dashing new gentleman arrival (Alessandro Nivola) falls for her charms and asks for her hand.
Rozema’s script is at times too modern for its period and too clever for its own good, bringing a modern perspective to the social conventions and 19th century attitudes. There’s an entire subtext dealing with the Caribbean slavery that is the family’s fortune and income, which all but drives one son mad and sends the family patriarch (an otherwise kindly figure played by playwright Harold Pinter), into a rage every time it’s mentioned
But Rozema’s direction is rich and tactile—she’s an often sensual director sensitive to the quiet moments and intimate details of small character interactions within larger scenes—and Frances O’Conner delightfully brings Fanny to life with charm and intelligence. The film’s glorious centerpiece, a mock coming out ball, turns into a flirty festival of desire where every gesture and glance spins a romantic web better than any speech could convey.
Lindsay Duncan, James Purefoy, Embeth Davidtz, Sophia Myles, and future Downton Abbey patriarch Hugh Bonneville costar.