FASTEN YOUR CORSETS tight, it's Jane Austen time again. (Moviegoers can be forgiven for asking, "There are more Austen novels to be filmed?") Based on one of her lesser works along with diaries and notes, the film does boast a few lively moments and poignant scenes. But it's a long step below 1995's excellent Persuasion and Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility, and the 1996 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries, all of which are worth renting before you spend a rainy matinee at Mansfield Park.
written and directed by Patricia Rozema
opens November 24 at Harvard Exit
Poor, bookish Fanny (Frances O'Connor) is raised by her rich cousins the Bertrams and inevitably falls for their sensitive son Edmund (Trainspotting's Jonny Lee Miller). She calls their dull lives "a quick succession of busy nothings," which are thankfully interrupted—for us, anyway—by the sexy, conniving Crawfords: sister Mary (Embeth Davidtz) and brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola, far from Face/Off). A few complications later, mean Sir Bertram (playwright Harold Pinter) tries to force Fanny to marry Henry, whom she dismisses as a rake and—worse—an "actor." Yet he courts her, saying, "I suspect you're almost entirely composed of ready opinions not shared." In fact, she reserves her tart opinions for us in direct address while supposedly writing her sister.
FANNY REFUSES HENRY and her overbearing uncle; it's the only power she's got. Director Rozema plays these scenes from a '90s perspective: This is Fanny's triumphant moment, defying the patriarchy—which we know is doubly evil because the Bertrams are also slave owners. (Boo! Hiss!) Fanny is also made to feel ashamed of her intelligence and latent sexuality—symbolized, as usual, by horseback riding.
Fanny's constant letter-writing/reading signifies, for Rozema, her oppression, since the frustrated author is obviously meant to represent Austen herself. (She died a 41-year-old spinster in 1817, an unlikely contemporary of Shelley and Byron.) Yet O'Connor is such a hottie that you can't take her oppression seriously. So good in Kiss or Kill, the Australian actress hardly seems without prospects for "being settled in life," as Sir Bertram says—in other words, marrying money, which is all an Austen heroine can hope to do.
That's the crux of Austen: cash. It is constantly invoked by Fanny's parents' squalid poverty, from which Rozema's would-be '90s heroine is rescued by luck rather than brains. "Chance is not always unkind," Fanny is told; and chance is what Rozema frankly acknowledges in her witty epilogue tableaus—which are, unfortunately, the strongest few minutes of her otherwise middling film.