an unfortunate nickname
Whoever thought it was a good idea to titles ladies with the name Frances “Fanny” must have been a cretin. Thinking of it the English way is even worse. For Fanny Hill, I suppose, it is entirely appropriate; for Fanny Price, however, it can almost make one believe she deserves her Cinderella status in Mansfield Park.
I’ve never read this book, and having long meant to, I must do so now. I hate to say that ITV made me do it. But at last, despite crackly reception, I’ve seen Billie Piper do a period role, and I wasn’t half impressed. She was subdued, and all those longing stares after the Doctor have made her quite adept at looking forlorn and soulful. This adaptation seemed to for a middle ground between the respectable but rather boring 1980s BBC adaptation and the 1990s motion picture treatment that both steamed things up and tried very hard to bring the slavery question into play. If it was remarkable for anything, it was for a very lovely score.
Mansfield Park does have a reputation for being the most boring of the Austen novels, revolving as it does around mostly the single location of the great estate of the title. Fanny, too, is usually regarded as the least popular heroine, being considered prudish, vanilla, and bland. This adaptation tried to dispel this by means of an interior monologue-like introduction—getting the exposition out of the way as quickly as possible and also trying to introduce us to Fanny’s inner world—as well as giving Fanny the long stares and an even more pronounced Cinderella treatment than I can recall seeing before.
Pipes’ Fanny is undoubtedly beautiful, quite in touch with her childish side. But admirably, to me at least, her blushing protestations and modest refusals made sense, for someone who is so locked into her role of pleasing everyone. Anne Elliot may have adopted this attitude later in life, but in Fanny it is both curious and believable, and Pipes does a pretty good job with it. Of course putting her in low-necked 18th-century gowns is just a lazy attempt at making her even more visibly different from Maria and Julia, who are barely in this adaptation. Of note here is Sir Thomas Bertram, Fanny’s uncle, who is given a sympathetic portrayal here entirely at odds with the one in the Purefroy version. Also worth mentioning is Edmund, who is a believable clergyman and yet one can see why Fanny has fallen for him—I was rather impressed with his realization of his own self-deception in his “love” for Mary Crawford. Alas, we can convince ourselves of almost anything given the desire.
Austen’s creations Henry and Mary Crawford are surprisingly devilish characters. Contrary to the general rule, in which Austen makes her “villains” less charming, they are entertaining, nuanced, and even slightly sympathetic. The play’s the thing here, and yet in contrast to other catastrophes like Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth’s affair and Cousin Tom’s brush with fever, the theatricals all feel curiously without consequence. The stuck position at Mansfield brings on tedium barely relieved by the first line dance I can ever recall taking place outdoors, during Fanny’s birthday picnic. Like all recent Austen adaptations, apparently, Mansfield Park doesn’t seem to know how to end, and puzzlingly we are left with Edmund and Fanny waltzing out of doors at their wedding. Weird.
While the addition of Fanny’s beloved brother is welcome—and the cross he brings her from his naval escapades is strikingly similar to one Austen’s younger brother brought her from sea-faring—I found myself really missing the hyper-realism of a visit to Fanny’s “real” family in a modest village house containing about thirteen children. Ah, but that belongs to the aesthetic of a different film. Anyway, the important thing is that Pug was there to run across the screen so I could shout “Puuuuuug!” every time.