A Look at the Film Adaptation of “Mansfield Park, 1999”

Okay, I’m back. Our lovely Alexa Adams is moving to Switzerland, and so I’m taking her place on the blog, for her furniture is packed and on the move. 

Today, I would like to repeat a recent analysis I did on the film adaptation of “Mansfield Park,” specifically the Miramax production from 1999. 

BBC/Miramax film
Patricia Rozema, Director
Francis O’Connor ….. Fanny Price
Harold Pinter ….. Sir Thomas Bertram
Jonny Lee Miller …. Edmund Bertram
Embeth Davidtz ….. Mary Crawford
Alessandro Nivola ….. Henry Crawford
Lindsay Duncan ….. Mrs. Price/Lady Bertram
Victoria Hamilton ….. Maria Bertram
Justine Waddell ….. Julia Bertram
Sheila Gish ….. Mrs. Norris
James Purefoy ….. Tom Bertram
Hugh Bonneville ….. Mr. Rushworth

Cineplex.com | Mansfield Park http://www.cineplex.com MANSFIELD PARK, Jonny Lee Miller, Frances O’Connor, 1999
Cineplex.com | Mansfield Park
MANSFIELD PARK, Jonny Lee Miller, Frances O’Connor, 1999

This version is a “reinterpretation” of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. As such, the 112-minutes film emphasizes the issues of slavery and the oppression of women’s rights. It is set in a particular social and political atmosphere, one Austen often glosses over in her novels. The film is set in 1805 and 1806. (See my previous post on Mansfield Park 1983 or my post on Mansfield Park 2007.)

The film begins with a young Fanny being sent from Portsmouth to Mansfield Park. The viewer can see the disheveled Fanny’s uncertainties at being sent away from her family, but he/she can also note the child’s quick intelligence and her mettle. Fanny is portrayed as a precocious child. In fact, Rozema turns Fanny into an aspiring writer, much in the vein of Jane Austen. In many ways, “Austen” becomes the narrator of the film. Fanny, such as, reads to Edmund what she has written. She does likewise in the voiceovers. In both instances, the movie goer hears passages taken from Jane Austen’s juvenilia. In the opening, young Fanny is reading a story to her sister, one Fanny supposedly wrote. It is from Austen’s Love and Freindship (sic). Fanny is shown as having her head full of romance novels.

In the latter part of the film, when Sir Thomas informs Fanny of Henry Crawford’s proposal, Fanny reads aloud to herself what she wrote: “From this period, the intimacy between them daily increased till at length it grew to such a pitch, that hey did not scruple to kick one another out of the window on the highest provocation.” This speech comes from Austen’s Frederic and Elfrida: A Novel, which Austen wrote in her early teens. In this short piece, one of Austen’s Juvenilia, Austen parodies some of the silly sentimental heroic literature of the late 1700s.

Tom Bertram (drinking on a balcony): Do you know it’s 5 o’clock in the morning?
Carriage Driver: Mrs Norris arranged for this girl to be brought here. It’s her niece, or something.
Tom Bertram: Mrs Norris lives in the parsonage over there.
Carriage Driver: I was told most definitely to drop her at the front entrance of Mansfield Park.
Tom Bertram: Then drop her.

When Sir Thomas announces to Mrs. Norris, his wife, and daughters that Fanny is of a second-class status in comparison to his family and children, young Fanny is standing outside the room and overhears his protestations. Fanny’s position in the house is set with these lines. Mrs. Norris assures Sir Thomas that his sons will think of Fanny as nothing more than as “sister.”

To illustrate Fanny’s growing maturity, Rozema has Fanny read from Austen’s The History of England. Fanny looks into the camera to read: “It was in this reign that Joan of Arc lived and made such a row among the English. They should not have burnt her but they did….” This is followed by what is known in film as a dissolve. Fanny continues to read in a voice over: “Henry the 7th. His Majesty died, and was succeeded by his son Henry whose only merit as not his being quite so bad as his daughter Elizabeth.” After another dissolve, Fanny’s character looks again into the camera to say: “And then that disgrace to humanity, the pest of society, Elizabeth, who, Murderess and Wicked Queen that she was, confined her cousin, the lovely Mary Queen of Scots for 19 YEARS and then brought her to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death. Much to eternal shame of the Monarchy and the entire Kingdom.” The camera slides to Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), who is Fanny’s audience for her reading. It is the viewer’s first look at Edmund Bertram.

Rozema used Kirby Hall in Northhamptonshire for the exterior scenes and some of the interior shots. In the original novel, Mansfield Park is described as such, “Miss Crawford soon felt that he and his situation might do. She looked about her with due consideration, and found almost everything in his favour: a park, a real park, five miles round, a spacious modern-built house, so well placed and well screened as to deserve to be in any collection of engravings of gentlemen’s seats in the kingdom, and wanting only to be completely new furnished–pleasant sisters, a quiet mother, and an agreeable man himself–with the advantage of being tied up from much gaming at present by a promise to his father, and of being Sir Thomas hereafter.” In contrast, Kirby Hall is an Elizabethan mansion. Kirby Hall gives the viewer the idea that the Bertram family fortune wanes. Even the interior scenes add to this impression. The walls are bare, and little furniture is evident. Fanny’s first walk through of the house has her climbing bare stone steps to an attic storage room where furniture and toys no longer necessary for the house are stored.

10One of the best exterior shots in the film is when Fanny and Edmund return to Mansfield Park when Tom Bertram is ill. Fog shrouds the house, providing the viewer a feeling of foreboding.

A discrepancy with the novel that struck me is the physicality of Francis O’Connor in the role of Fanny. She rides horses and races across the estate grounds. She is more in the vein of Elizabeth Bennet than the sickly child of Fanny Price from the novel. She is TOO familiar with Edmund Bertram for 19th Century morals. They spend time together in her bedroom and in private walks.

Going against Austen’s original story, this film omits the character of William Price, Fanny’s brother. I found this a bit frustrating for Fanny abandons her qualms about accepting Henry Crawford’s proposal. Crawford’s “kindness” in assisting William Price to a commission in the military plays strongly in Fanny’s decision. This key point of the original story becomes glossed over in this adaptation. Instead of writing letters to William, Fanny writes to her sister. We hear the content of these letters in voiceovers read by Fanny. Also, William is omitted from the ball given by Sir Thomas in Fanny’s honor.

The political issue of slavery invades this film in a way the book does not. In the novel, slavery is mentioned only once. Fanny tells Edmund that her family ignores her when she asks of the problem of slavery. When Fanny is on her way from Portsmouth to Northamptonshire slave ships are shown in anchor. Fanny hears men singing, and the coachman says that the captain of the ship is bringing some “darkies” home to his wife. The song is repeated when Fanny returns to Portsmouth and again during the film’s ending credits. Slavery is brought to issue in the film when Edmund tells Fanny that Sir Thomas’s bad humor is a result of problems on the plantation in the Americas.

Edmund: The abolitionists are making inroads.
Fanny: That’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Edmund: We all live off the profits from slavery. Even you, Fanny.

Later, in the film, Edmund rebukes his father for Sir Thomas’s lack of humanity for the loss of lives on the plantation.

Sir Thomas speaks of his slaves, says, “The mulattos are in general well-shaped and the women especially well-featured. I have one so easy and graceful in her movements as well.” Sir Thomas goes on say he will bring a slave back to Mansfield Park to work as a servant. No part of this scene appears in the novel.

This talk of slavery leads Fanny to tell Edmund “I’ll not be sold off like one of your father’s slaves” when Sir Thomas says he will give a ball to assist Fanny in finding a mate. This line is the “theme” of the film. Rozema portrays the lives of women of the time period as equivalent to the slaves of which Sir Thomas so often speaks. Sir Thomas “orders” Fanny to marry Henry Crawford; he dictates to her more so than he does his daughters.

The character of Tom Bertram is also different from the original novel. Tom is this film is not only a spoiled indulgent eldest son who wastes his allowance and other funds on horse racing and gaming hells, but Tom also is self-destructive. Mrs. Norris shows Fanny one of Tom’s “self portraits,” one is which Death has his hand on Tom’s shoulder. In Austen’s novel, Tom Bertram is a minor character. In this film, he becomes the reflection of his father’s sins.

This film leaves out the visit to Sotherton, an important episode in the novel. In this adaptation, when the Crawfords call at Mansfield Park, Rozema has the camera show the reaction of each of the main characters (Maria, Rushworth, Julia, Lady Bertram, and Fanny) before it pans to the Crawfords, visually describing them by panning from heel to head on first Mary and then Henry.

When Mary asks, “Who is to play Anhalt? What gentleman among you, am I to have the pleasure of making love to.” In the novel, no real notice is given the line. We must recall that in the early 19th Century, “making love” was courtship, not a sexual activity. However, in the film, Embeth Davidtz’s delivery of the line puts special emphasis on the words.

mansfield2The costumes display Rozema’s view of the time period. Fanny wears jumpers over long-sleeve blouses as her daily wear.

Mansfield Park (1999) – Hold On (One More Time With Feeling) – YouTube http://www.youtube.com Mansfield Park (1999) – Hold On (One More Time With Feeling)
Mansfield Park (1999) – Hold On (One More Time With Feeling) – YouTube
Mansfield Park (1999) – Hold On (One More Time With Feeling)


Fanny’s clothes are not fitted in any way. The dress for the ball is a contrast to this “dullness.” Fanny appears in a white, empire style dress with evident décolletage. After the ball, Fanny’s breasts are on “display” in her clothing. Fanny also rarely wears a hat in the film, especially when she travels to Portsmouth. As women were very conscious of their skin (as Sir Walter remarks in Persuasion) and being too brown (as Elizabeth Bennet is in Pride and Prejudice), this breaks with the time period. The character of Mary Crawford wears tight-fitting clothing and displays lots of décolletage. She never wears pastels, which would be unusual for unmarried ladies in the early 1800s. With skirts and form fitting blouses, the costumes seem more modern than period pieces.

In this film, the scenes when the characters perform the play differ from the novel. Fanny does not refuse to take part in the play. Mrs. Norris, fearing Fanny means to move into circles to which she is not relegated, sends Fanny about her work than to encourage Fanny to take part in the play. In the novel, it is Mrs. Norris who “shoves” Fanny into a minor role.

Some critics of the film feel that the scene where Mary comes to Fanny’s room to practice her lines is suggestive of lesbianism, especially as Edmund is watching them. Mary places her hands on Fanny’s waist as the camera circles them. Mary is not only practicing her lines, she is also flirting with Edmund, who accepts the role of Anhalt (from Inchbald’s “Lovers’ Vows”) after viewing the rehearsal. Later, Mary removes Fanny’s clothing after Fanny is caught in the rain. It is all so “Not Austen,” in my opinion. I assume because Rozema had two earlier films with lesbianism as an issue that critics made the natural jump in conclusions. The scene does not make me uncomfortable, it is just not “Austen.”

Mansfield Park (1999) Soundtrack – 17 Tom Leaves – YouTube http://www.youtube.com Mansfield Park (1999) Soundtrack – 17 Tom Leaves
Mansfield Park (1999) Soundtrack – 17 Tom Leaves – YouTube
Mansfield Park (1999) Soundtrack – 17 Tom Leaves

Another time that Rozema uses a circling camera is when Henry Crawford reads Laurence Sterne’s “A Sentimental Journey” to Fanny. Maria spies on the pair, realizing that Henry is courting Fanny.

At the ball, the dances seem more “intimate” than the customary period dramas. At the end of the ball, Fanny chooses to leave on her own, a wine glass in hand. The dance scenes show her thoroughly enjoying herself.

All right. Those are some of my observations. Now, it is your turn. So other than Jonny Lee Miller, what did you like about this adaptation? What did you dislike?

39 Responses to A Look at the Film Adaptation of “Mansfield Park, 1999”

  1. I love the movie but it is a very loose interpretation of Austen. The genre I feel is in keeping and I am not offended that it does not reflect the time period strictly as such. I bought the DVD and enjoy it frequently.

  2. I just re-read Mansfield Park and kept remembering why I didn’t like the movie when I first saw it. So many changes – not for the good (at least to me). I love re-watching movies, and for a while now, I’ve just watched it as a movie, and not a Jane adaptation.

    • This movie does have some different scenes added (not in canon). One that stands out is the scene in which Fanny accepts Mr. Bertram’s proposal (overnight) and then there is the one in which his sister, Mary, is drying Fanny’s hair – it almost borders on a lesbian scene. I did like the scenes at the end in which the tableau is frozen for a few seconds as each looks in a different direction.

  3. I am much less forgiving of liberties taken by film adaptations than by what we do in the JAFF world. When readers pick up one of our books, chances are they already know and love Austen’s original works. That’s less likely to be the case for films, especially if they are big screen productions. If a movie is someone’s first introduction to Austen, I want it to be a faithful narrative. This version was so far off, they may as well have renamed it and passed it off as original. However, I do prefer the characterizations here to Austen’s. MP just isn’t a favorite. Great article, Regina.

    • Thank you, Pamela. I am all for film adaptations bringing people to Austen’s books. Yet, I know quite a few Austen fans who never read any of her books. They watch the films and read JAFF online. Both have a place in the Austen world, but they should not supplant Austen’s novels.

  4. Thanks for the great post, Regina!
    I must watch this version again, I’ve forgotten so much about what was different between it and the novel.
    This Fanny was a lot prettier, and you’re right, in so many other ways more Elizabeth than Fanny, but at least she wasn’t Billie Piper 🙂 Biillie’s a great actress, just NOT at all right for Fanny Price IMO. I greatly preferred the 1999 version to the Billie Piper one, but I think we need a remake that would be more faithful to the original story. Or better still, a new version of Persuasion.

    • I agree with you about Billie Piper’s portrayal of Fanny Price. I wish we could find a happy medium in these films. Staying close to Austen’s tale is important, but that does not mean the production could not take some liberties.
      For example, Joe Wright’s staging of the dance at the Netherfield Ball in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice was brilliant. He used a technique we rarely see in films any more. In truth, I nearly jumped out of my seat at the theatre when I saw the scene and the breaking of the 180 degree line.
      In film, THE CONTINUITY SYSTEM is a highly standardized system of editing, now virtually universal in commercial film and television but originally associated with Hollywood cinema, that matches spatial and temporal relations from shot to shot in order to maintain continuous and clear narrative action. Generally speaking, the continuity system aims to present a scene so that the editing is “invisible” (not consciously noticed by the viewer) and the viewer is never distracted by awkward jumps between shots or by any confusion about the spatial lay-out of the scene. Classical editing achieves a “smooth” and “seamless” style of NARRATION, both because of its conventionality (it is “invisible” in part because we are so used to it) and because it employs a number of powerful techniques designed to maximize a sense of spatial and temporal continuity.
      A key element of the continuity system is the 180 DEGREE RULE, which states that the camera must stay on only one side of the actions and objects in a scene. An invisible line, known as the 180 DEGREE LINE or AXIS OF ACTION, runs through the space of the scene. The camera can shoot from any position within one side of that line, but it may never cross it. This convention ensures that the shot will have consistent spatial relations and screen directions. In other words, characters and objects never “flip flop:” if they are on the right side of the screen, they will remain on the right from shot to shot; those on the left will always be on the left. For example, an actor walking from the left side of the screen to the right will not suddenly, in the next shot, appear to be walking in the opposite direction — a reversal that would strike the viewer, if only fleetingly, as confusing or jarring. With the 180 DEGREE RULE, the viewer rarely experiences even a momentary sense of spatial disorientation.
      Yet, Wright used this “disorientation” to create a “dream world” where only Darcy and Elizabeth existed.
      As to a new version of Persuasion, do not get me started. I sometimes used the Rupert Penry-Jones version of the film in my class. I adore RPJ, but the staging of the scene in Bath where Sally Hawkins runs up and down the Royal Crescent is just ridiculous. My students always said their kiss looked like SH was a baby bird with her mouth open and he was the papa bird dropping in a worm. LOL!

      • I don’t know anyone who likes that scene in Bath in which Anne runs through through town. I just skip that scene IF I watch that movie version. Learned something today, re: 180 degree line. Thank you.

          • Well, I’ve learned something new (again). I never realized the kiss was in slow motion. Why would the director do that? It was already painfully slow, and that spit string drives me crazier than I already am. I speed it as fast as it will go from when Wentworth starts to kiss her until he’s finally kissing her. I feel as if I’m cutting half the movie by the time I zoom through the Bath Marathon and the Spit String Kiss.

  5. As always, Regina, your insights into movies are excellent. I can’t disagree with a single point, IF taken from the POV of comparing movie to novel. Naturally, this is what is proper for a book adaptation. I only note this because I saw this version before reading Mansfield Park, or being a huge Austen fan. So, from a pure enjoyable movie standpoint, I love it. A feisty Fanny, not-so gullible Edmund, romantic overtones, important issues such as slavery, and lovely cinematography sold me. Now I can see the deviations, of course, so know it is not a “good” adaptation of the book.

    Still, I love it! Helps that Jonny Lee Miller is so handsome and a terrific actor, and Francis O’Connor is adorable. 🙂

    • I suppose when one sees the film has lots to do with his/her interpretation. About two years prior, I reread Mansfield Park in great detail, and then I saw this adaptation. I wanted to like it for I enjoy Francis O’Connor as an actress, I just could not do so.

  6. Whoa…strong reactions here. Actually makes one hesitate to say that they either own the DVD or watched it. I own every DVD of Austen’s work, whether I think they are true adaptations or not. I also own many of Jane Eyre and there seem to be many more of that one then of P&P. I do admire Jonny Lee Miller but agree that this Fanny is nothing like JA’s. And without reading comments about such I did think that Mary Crawford’s attentions to Fanny bordered on lesbianism. Maybe I am just too aware of that issue with all going on in our society today with equal marriage status and having worked with many of that persuasion. I am not familiar enough with the Juvenilia to have knows parts were quotes from such. But I did realize that it was not part of the book. I look upon this movie as I look upon written variations. I find them an interesting treatment but I know the difference from the classic JA novels.

    • Sheila, many in the JAFF community do not read the books. They simply watch the films/TV series. Therefore, they possess ideas that do not match Austen’s works. I spent many years as a consultant in media literacy [how to read visual images]. Even so, if you look at the comments, Arnie totally disagrees with me. That is the power of visual literacy. As in reading a book, we all come away with different ideas/emotions.

  7. Regina, Thank you for this analysis of Mansfield Park. I just happened to stream it recently. I was put off by some of the scenes between Fanny and Mary. I thought… I don’t remember that. But Embeth Daviditz face bothered me. She looked so familiar. I had to check her film biography to discover she was Darcy’s finance in Bridge Jones Diary. I can’t say I was enamored with the film.

  8. I I studiously avoided the film after it was billed as a “sex farce.” Having read the book, I knew it would bear little resemblance to Austen’s novel. I finally watched it last year, and I found that I was right. It was an Austen variation, though most of us who actually write Austen variations respect the author too much to deviate so far from the intent of the original. I like Jonny Lee Miller, but even he couldn’t save this debacle. It’s one of the few Austen films which I do not own.

      • I would like to edit my comments, but I don’t see how to do it. Let me say that I have never seen a good adaptation of Mansfield Park. The old one is truer to the book, but I don’t care for the actors, and it looks as if somebody shot it with a home video camera.

        I know that we all take liberties with Austen’s works. For myself, I try to leave the characters true to Austen’s originals. For instance, I don’t make her “good” characters “bad” or vice versa. We all deviate from the original plots. For heaven’s sake, I made Darcy an angel in my first series. (Pun intended.)

        I also like films which take a creative approach to Austen’s works. I love the recent “Emma” with Jonny Lee Miller. I think that showing how Emma, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax were all orphaned at the beginning ties the three characters together. Both Emma and Frank still had their birth fathers, but while Emma’s father kept her, Frank’s allowed him to go to his mother’s sister. I also liked the Kate Beckinsale version very much. In my opinion, it is the version which is truest to the book.

        In short, my objection to “Mansfield Park” was in it’s attempt to make it modern without removing it from the time period. (Think “Clueless” in Regency costuming.) As you said, it was too far removed from the novel’s intent.

  9. I loved this film version. It was so much better than the old BBC. Thanks for the review. Now I will have to go watch the movie again. Jen Red

  10. I saw this film years ago. What I recall is it is not for Austen “purists”, but if you like Jonny Lee Miller (which I do), then you would probably enjoy this movie just to see him. But if you are looking for a faithful representative of the book, skip it.

    • The film has its place in the Austen genre, but like you, I would not recommend it to the “purist.” I did appreciate the initiation into the History of England and Austen’s Juvenila, which took me by surprise. It speaks to the director that they chose to look at Austen’s letters and lesser works in the production.

  11. ReGina, if you read the substantial Austenscholarly literature, and also browse in my blog, you find out that the slavery (and servitude) subtext, the lesbian vibe between Mary and Fanny, the awful hypocrisy of Sur Thomas, and several other aspects of the film are very plausible alternative readings of the actual words Jane Austen wrote.

    • Arnie, I do study Austen scholarly literature, and I am not one of those who believes Austen unaware of the slavery issue, etc. I agree there are several references to Antigua and the plantation in Austen’s novel, but there is only one line with an explicit reference to slavery. I do not feel there is anything in the novel to imply that Austen condoned slavery; however, as slavery was widely accepted at the times, perhaps she held few opinions on the issue or mayhap Austen shared her dislike of the practice in private with family and friends. For all we know, the letters Cassandra burned were loaded with controversial language. This is another area in which we must agree to disagree.

      • Thank you for posting my comment- we do indeed profoundly disagree – I think Rozema got to the heart of Mansfield Park as a pervasive enactment of servitude in a multitude of forms, including but not limited to colonial slavery. It’s all of a piece

  12. Thanks for this. I never saw the movie, I had no desire to see the movie. I saw some scenes such as Maria and Henry being caught in the act and saw Fanny wearing clothes from the Gap and heard enough about the slavery issue to know that the only similarities to Austen’s novel were the title and characters’ names. Almost every director who films a movie supposedly about Mansfield Park changes it. They hate Fanny so have to remake her. There is much more about Sir Thomas and Tom in Antigua and their misuse of the slaves for which there isn’t an iota of evidence in the novel. The advertisements and comments, scenes, etc about the movie were enough to make me forgo it. IT didn’t stay around here very long, either.

    • Like you, Nancy, I avoided it for years, but since retiring from the classroom, I have been “revisiting” pieces of literature and film that never quite caught my interest initially. This is one of them. If it had been a book, I would have thrown it against the wall. It took me three settings to watch the whole thing. Now, I can say I have seen it. That is about it.

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