Mansfield Park (1999) is a romantic comedy-drama film based on Jane Austen’s original novel. It references Austen’s earlier writings before she was a more widely known author, including her work The History of England (1791).
Directed by Patricia Rozema, the film tells on its surface a story of the dramas which occur within a wealthy English family from the heroine Fanny Price’s perspective. There are scandals, jealousy, a mother hooked on opium, and references to the contradictory slave trade in which Fanny’s family was involved. But, as with most stories, it is usually recognized as a romance.
Criticism of the book itself is varied. Some assert it is one of Austen’s more complicated novels with imperfect yet identifiable main characters and witty uses of location to mirror later events in the story. Others argue Fanny Price is a dull heroine, especially compared to others like Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice.
My opinion of this story has transformed over the years. When I first read it perhaps ten years ago, I didn’t understand its story, symbolism, or wit as I should have. I remember liking Fanny as a character with strong moral principles, in which she remained unshaken. I also was somewhat upset she and Henry Crawford did not marry in the end. Like many, I had, and maybe still have, a particular weakness for love stories where love changes major flaws in its characters. I thought Edmund was boring but accepted their ending together.
When I first watched the 1999 film, I thought it deviated too much from Jane Austen’s novel. The references to the slave trade jarred me, and Henry Crawford’s affair with Maria upset me. I was determined to leave the movie alone and move on to other romances.
Well, as it happens, I returned to this movie. A few nights ago, I wanted to see something romantic. But unable to find anything else suitable, I settled on Mansfield Park. My admiration for this film has skyrocketed these last few days since seeing it again as I have reflected on its messages. Despite my previous thoughts, I believe it captured the overarching idea Austen had for the original novel.
For those who do not know, the story takes place in the early 19th century in England. Miss Fanny Price, the second eldest, leaves her family to live with her mother’s sister in Northamptonshire at Mansfield Park indefinitely. Estranged from her immediate family, she feels lonely and inferior to her cousins, especially Maria and Julia, who look down on her due to her lack of education and family’s poverty. However, her cousin Edmund is genuine and kind to her. Over the next few years, she falls in love with him while living silently as a companion to Mrs. Bertram and Norris.
Throughout the story, critical events occur. One, Fanny’s uncle Mr. Norris dies, and his dear but apathetic wife Mrs. Norris decides to move, leaving her parsonage open for occupants. To add to the rather unremarkable family dramas, Maria also becomes engaged to Mr. Rushmore, a boring but wealthy young man. As Miss Austen penned, “Life seem(ed) nothing more than a quick succession of busy nothings.” But, as we all know, when such stories seem settled within themselves, change comes creeping in.
Well, two extraordinary people come to stay at the parsonage, Miss Mary Crawford and her brother Henry Crawford. They are handsome, charming, worldly, and stir things up at Mansfield Park unashamedly. Maria and Julia are completely smitten with Mr. Crawford, who unapologetically flirts with both of them. Also, to Fanny’s dismay, Edmund falls for Miss Crawford.
Then, Tom Bertram, Edmund’s older brother, returns unexpectedly from Antiga and proposes they put on a rather scandalous play called Lover’s Vows. Fanny alone remains estranged from it. Even Edmund eventually becomes involved though initially, he was disgusted with it. The father, Mr. Bertram, returns and disbands the play, but its effects stay in place although Maria still marries her fiance and Tom leaves again with Mr. Yates.
Then something unexpected happens. Mr. Crawford begins to notice and fall in love with Fanny Price after recognizing her purity and goodness. Though he proposes to her, she rejects him because she does not trust him. Even when Mr. Bertram sends her home to her family, believing her to be blind to and ungrateful for a good thing, Mr. Crawford follows her and still tries to court her. Though her heart begins to soften to him, she remains hesitant. At this point in the story, it very well seems she will marry Mr. Crawford, having changed him through love, and Edmund will marry Mary Crawford.
But that does not happen. Henry has a scandalous affair with Maria, which ruins any chance he could possibly have had with Fanny. Edmund also discontinues his pursuits for Mary Crawford when he shockingly learns how she is not at all upset by her brother’s affair and even wishes his brother Tom will die so he can inherit the estate. In the end, Lord Bertram comes to revere Fanny as one of his daughters, and the rest of his family accepts Fanny as one of their equals. Fanny and Edmund also marry in the end, he finally realizing his love for her.
There are obvious differences between this movie and Jane Austen’s original novel. Austen portrayed Fanny as shy, weak, and timid, basically overshadowed by her more boisterous cousins. In the movie, however, Fanny’s character mirrors Jane Austen. She is healthy, vibrant, strong-willed, and an aspiring young author. I like this change. It gave her more presence and also the power to make things happen.
This film also addresses Fanny’s family’s involvement in the slave trade. It is not too focused on, but it is important for character development, specifically for Fanny, Tom Bertram, and Lord Bertram. Including moral conflicts from this period pointed out the ugly truth of living in their world. The Bertram family lived off profits from the slave trade. This truth leaves a bitter taste in the mouth but pushes needed changes in the family.
(Francis O’Connor as Fanny Price, Franny looks out the window at Edmund, 1999)
This film has profound messages and engaging characters. When I finished watching it a few days ago, I thought to myself, “There is a lesson to be learned here.”
Now, I don’t think the idea of this story is “What does it mean to fall in love?” As Edmund says in the movie, “There are as many forms of love as moments in time.” I think what all viewers need to learn from this story is, “When is it right to act on and pursue love?”. What are the fruits of these “many forms of love” Edmund referred to?
Much of the movie’s charm lies in subtle moments that mirror future experiences and events. What the characters don’t speak of openly is often more important than the dialogue. As an audience, we must think and look carefully at body language to understand this movie’s message.
The movie focused on foreshadowing through small and simple acts from its characters. Their childish rendering of the play Lover’s Vows, a shallow play centered on infidelity, manipulation, and speculation, is a remarkable example of this. On its surface, enacting such a scandalous play seemed innocent, but eventually, it set the stage for future events. How each character chose to involve themselves in Lover’s Vows held weighty ramifications.
Edmund chose to take part in the play because he could openly flirt with Miss Crawford’s character. Miss Crawford, in turn, manipulates Edmund both into taking part in Lover’s Vows and his later affections. He doesn’t see through her machinations until the end of the movie. Maria and Mr. Crawford shamelessly flirt throughout rehearsals, unstopped by the rest of the family, setting the stage for their eventual affair. Fanny alone remains the only character who sees the play for what it is and refuses to participate. She remains unscarred by its effects and retains her moral principles.
Much of the film’s charm lies in Fanny’s ability to follow her conscience and choose her own happiness. There were so many times I could see others trying to create for her, her ideal life. At first, the Bertrams push her down, failing to acknowledge her skills, wit, and moral character. Later, they notice only her looks. As for Mr. Crawford, he sees her as a conquest, even if he unconsciously did so.
But, Fanny Price chose the happy ending she desired, not the one others chose for her. Other romances would have her be with Mr. Crawford, a dashingly handsome man with a fortune. But Fanny stayed focused on what she wanted, and in the end, she achieved what she had desired. Her family learned to accept and love her for who she was, and she gained Edmund’s love, companionship, and constant friendship. Fanny chose her happiness and stayed true to herself. For such, I believe she is an incredibly admirable person.
As for the other characters, they faced the consequences of their actions. Where Fanny had remained steadfast and moral, others suffered for their poor decisions. Her elder cousin Tom drank himself nearly to death. Maria, who could have escaped her life with Mr. Rushworth, chose wealth and eventually a life of solitude caused by her affair. Mr. Crawford is a tragic figure because he had begun to change. If Mr. Crawford had stayed true to his newfound feelings, he would have been with Fanny. But heartbroken and overcome, he transgressed and destroyed his future with her.
It’s important to note Fanny would eventually have been very unhappy married to Mr. Crawford. Given his nature, he would have smothered her talents, and once the luster of infatuation had faded, might very well have betrayed her.
Edmund would have suffered in marriage to Miss Crawford because she did not accept him for who he was, his wishes to be a clergyman or his other interests. She was incredibly self-motivated and tried to change him into the kind of man she wanted, one who would give her wealth, fortune, and wide soci
But, I don’t feel Edmund’s love for Miss Crawford was on the same level as his love for Fanny. Edmund did not realize the depth or nature of his feelings. As Juliet McMaster wrote in her book, Love: Surface and Subsurface, “Edmund’s unconscious courtship of Fanny, which is concurrent with his deliberate courtship of Mary,” was one of the most fascinating elements of the story. Fanny knew and understood her feelings, but it took Edmund time to recognize the love he felt for Fanny had evolved beyond brotherly affection.
One scene which illustrates Edmund’s evolving love happens when Edmund comes to pick Fanny up from her home in Portsworth after Tom fell gravely ill. When Fanny asks Edmund if he is doing well, he responds, “Yes. As I intimated in my last letter, I believe Mary has almost reconciled herself to marrying a stodgy clergyman.” On the surface, he is infatuated with Miss Crawford. But, as the conversation continues, his true feelings surface without him initially realizing it.
Edmund: I understand Crawford paid you a visit.
Edmund: And was he attentive?
Fanny: Yes… Very.
Edmund: And has your heart changed towards him?
Fanny: Yes… Several times. I have… I find that l… I find that…
Edmund: (Shh). . . Surely you and I are beyond speaking,
when words are clearly not enough. (Pause) I missed you.
Fanny: And I you.
I cannot portray in words the subtle looks and changes in Fanny and Edmund as they spoke. It is clear they are dear to one another, but Fanny is tentative, trying hard not to betray her feelings. Edmund, at one point, after Fanny places her hand on the seat, reaches over and takes it without looking at her. Throughout the film, I noticed small unspoken gestures like these which passed between them. I thought if all of us could find someone like that in this life, we would be fortunate.
Disney character animator Ollie Johnston said, “You have to make it sincere, so that the audience will believe everything they do, all their emotions. Ask yourself: What is the character thinking and why does he feel this way?”
I caught myself watching each character’s facial expressions and body language many times throughout this movie. Some of my favorite nonverbal moments include the dance sequence between Miss and Mr. Crawford and Edmund and Fanny, Fanny’s longing stare outside the window watching Edmund as he walked with Miss Crawford, and Edmund’s kind way of embracing Fanny after she saw Mr. Crawford and Maria having an affair.
Though we may fall in love, it may not be with the right person. Finding a companion who uplifts them and loves them throughout the layers and complexities of time is a truly beautiful and fulfilling thing. Jennifer Moore, in her fictional novel Miss Burton Unmasks a Prince, stated,
“The correct relationship will make a person bloom. He becomes more himself, his talents deepen, his personality grows, and he thrives. But the wrong relationship will produce the opposite. The things that were once so vital no longer matter. His talents disappear, his individuality fades, and he wilts.”
This movie is clever, thought-provoking, and enjoyable, though I am sure I have to be in just the right mood to see it. I give it a medal of approval and congratulations for causing me to think so deeply.
Edmund Bertram: There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.
Fanny Price: Maria was married on Saturday. In all important preparations of mind she was complete, being prepared for matrimony by a hatred of home, by the misery of disappointed affection, and contempt of the man she was to marry. The bride was elegantly dressed and the two bridesmaids were duly inferior. Her mother stood with salts, expecting to be agitated, and her aunt tried to cry. Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business.
Edmund: Fanny, I must confess something. I’ve loved you all my life.
Fanny: I know, Edmund.
Edmund: No, Fanny… As a man loves a woman. As a hero loves a heroine. As I’ve never loved anyone in my entire life. I was so anxious to do what is right… …that I forgot to do what is right. But if you choose me, after all my blundering and blindness, that will be a happiness which no description could reach.
[On the play Lover’s Vows] Edmund: More dim-witted fiction to clutter the world.
Miss Crawford: Come now, Mr Bertram. Drama is to life what ships are to the sea. A means to traverse it. To plumb its depths, breadth and beauty.
Edmund: I couldn’t agree more. Good drama, in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the liveliest wit, are conveyed to the world through the best chosen language. This is essential. This is trash!
Tom Bertram: He’s so serious!
Edmund: That is the worst charge, isn’t it?
Miss Crawford: Is Edmund to be a clergyman?
Miss Crawford: But a clergyman is so drear. A clergyman’s wife is even worse!
Edmund: What profession would you suggest, Miss Crawford? I’m not, as you know, the first born.
Miss Crawford: There must be an uncle or grandfather to place you somewhere?
Edmund: There is not.
Miss Crawford: Choose law, then, it’s not too late. At least you can distinguish yourself there with language and wit.
Edmund: I have no wish to blunder about on the borders of empty repartee.
Miss Crawford: Your father could put you into Parliament.
Edmund: My father’s choices are less than compelling for me. No, I wish to become a clergyman. There are worse things than a life of compassion and contemplation.