In our era of financial social climbing, when the launch of an IPO has become the Wall Street equivalent of a debutante’s coming-out bash, it’s alluring to see a costume drama that takes us inside the subtlest, most wrenching realities of money. In Mansfield Park, which is set in 1806, wealth and status hold the world together, yet the movie is no idle revel in the decorous fineries of ”class.” Based on one of Jane Austen’s most idiosyncratic novels, the film understands that in a society where money dictates destiny, the tug-of-war between love and survival can tear a woman apart.
The heroine, Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor), is born into poverty and then shipped off at age 10 to live with her rich relatives, the Bertrams, at Mansfield Park, a magnificent stone mansion on the outskirts of London. There, she is looked upon as a glorified servant — though, ironically, it’s her poor roots that nourish her depth of character, allowing her to draw upon her imagination instead of simply plotting to meet the right suitor. Besides, she’s got all the company she desires in Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), the tender cousin she grows up with and loves; he’s the one who sees her inner light.
The Bertrams are beset by a wickedly charming and opportunistic pair of schemers — Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola), a rake who carries himself like a 19th-century Sammy Hagar, and his sister, Mary (Embeth Davidtz), a luscious, unscrupulous flirt. Henry proposes to Fanny, but she sees right through him, and when she refuses to obey the family patriarch, the stern Sir Thomas (powerfully acted by playwright Harold Pinter), and marry him, she is sent back to her destitution.
The Australian actress Frances O’Connor is a true find. She’s as beautiful as the young Barbara Hershey, with a stare that’s pensive yet playful, and she puts us in touch with the quiet battle of emotions in Fanny. Adapted and directed by Patricia Rozema, ”Mansfield Park” is a handsome and forceful piece of work, though there’s an oddity at its center that dims its radiance as a romance.
Fanny and Edmund, who are obviously made for each other, spend the entire movie denying their feelings, yet it’s never clear whether what’s keeping them apart is their mutual shy tentativeness or the torment of being stuck in a Greg-and-Marcia-Brady conundrum. Somehow, I don’t think Jane Austen meant us to regard her novel’s central relationship as borderline incestuous.