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Thursday, December 23, 1999

An updated attitude for plain Jane

Movie: Mansfield Park

Posted on Thu, Dec 23, 1999 at 4:00 AM

****
Our Rating: 4.00

This has been a sensational decade for British novelist Jane Austen. Her novel "Emma was" adapted by Amy Heckerling to a Beverly Hills setting as "Clueless." Then Gwyneth Paltrow took the lead in the same story done as a costume drama under the original title. Emma Thompson adapted "Sense and Sensibility" and won an Oscar for her script. And all this after the BBC produced six one-hour episodes of "Pride and Prejudice" in 1995.

Digging even deeper into the Austen library, Patricia Rozema has resurrected Austen's third novel, "Mansfield Park," choosing to place it in the early 1800s when it was written, but with a decidedly updated tone.

Austen wrote comedies of manners, nearly always in a very subtle manner, and Rozema manages that tone quite well. Almost nothing here gets said straight out, and large quantities of information get transferred through glances, turns and other small gestures. But Rozema gives the heroine of "Mansfield Park," Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor), certain traits sure to warm 20th-century hearts. She condemns slavery in ways almost no one else did at the time and carries some definitely feminist airs.

Young Fanny escapes an overcrowded family in Portsmouth to join the sprawling "Mansfield Park" estate of her wealthier relatives. While she enjoys some freedoms, her aunt, uncle and cousins never allow her to forget she's the poor relation and, therefore, inferior. Her standing becomes an issue as Fanny grows up to be prettier, smarter and wittier than most everyone else. When the possibility of romance comes up, things get downright fascinating.

Fanny forms a platonic relationship with a male cousin (Jonny Lee Miller), but before that can blossom into something else, the cousin becomes smitten with an older London woman (Embeth Davidtz) who arrives with her brother (Alessandro Nivola) for an extended visit. The brother takes a shine to Fanny, but Fanny's reaction is less than agreeable to everyone involved. Even a return trip to Portsmouth poverty, with the ardent admirer in hot pursuit, can't shake her resolve.

O'Connor, an Australian, has a charming presence, as does Davidtz, now also in theaters in Bicentennial Man. Miller, first visible in "Trainspotting," does well in a very different role. The uncle is played by playwright Harold Pinter, a face seldom seen in U.S. films.

To be sure, several aspects of Rozema's film seem more than a little like an idealized romance novel. A plucky heroine, contrasting romantic partners, subtle deceptions and veiled intrigues might have you checking for the Harlequin label. Still, Rozema, who made her feature debut with "I Heard the Mermaids Singing," clearly has a feel for her various characters, and she lets them reveal themselves at an appropriately Austen-like pace.

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