The main drawback with the most recent version of Mansfield Park is that it’s too short, plain and simply. Once all the ads are removed, it’s just 93 minutes long, which isn’t nearly enough to get the full flavour of the book and means large chunks have to be cut out.
The most damaging loss is the whole Portsmouth section of the novel, taking with it all sense of the poverty of Fanny’s family and why Fanny might be under so much pressure to accept Henry. There is no substitute for the more leisured pace of one of the older BBC adaptations. No wonder that the characters rush and gallop about, with some scenes where Fanny hurtles down the stairs at a frightening rate which left me expecting to fall over her long skirt. There probably wasn’t time for her to walk down the stairs at a more sedate pace.
I was surprised before seeing the film by the casting of blonde, curvy Billie Piper (a star in Britain although not conventionally beautiful) as Fanny. On watching, my immediate impression was that she looked all wrong, wearing such low-cut dresses which might be in period but feel wrong for the character. There is also something very modern about her, though I can’t put my finger on what this is. However, even if miscast, she is a good actress and I think did somehow grow into the part as the film went on, giving a feeling of Fanny’s nervousness and desire to stay in the background.
Despite these problems (and the shaky camerawork which is supposed to give a feeling of immediacy but feels a bit strange in a costume drama) I actually enjoyed this version, written by Maggie Wadey and directed by Iain B. MacDonald, more than I expected to after seeing the lukewarm/grudging comments from pundits on BBC’s Late Review series. I liked it within its limits, and was interested to see that it does spend a lot of time on the performance of Lovers’ Vows.
This version of MP starts off with Fanny narrating her own story in voiceover, although this element soon vanishes, except for a scene later on where she starts to write letters to Edmund, only to tear them up. For me this was one of the most successful scenes in this version.
As with the most recent P&P, I feel the casting of very young actors in the principal roles does work well in making them seem vulnerable and uncertain. I think both Edmund (Blake Ritson) and Mary (Hayley Atwell) are particularly well cast – and was pleased that Edmund is kept very true to the character in the novel rather than being made more daring or more of a standard romantic.
In the older generation I like both the actors they have chosen for Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, Douglas Hodge and Jemma Redgrave – Redgrave is a favourite of mine from her role as an Edwardian woman doctor in the series Bramwell, which I liked very much. However, Lady Bertram does get most of the really bad and clunkingly un-Austenlike lines in this version, for some reason (“I think Julia is ready to be fallen in love with”), and, oddly, is also turned into a matchmaker.
I was startled for a minute to see actress Maggie O’Neill, who I mainly remember as a sexy temptress-type character in Take Me Home, a TV drama back in the 1980s, cast as Mrs Norris. (I gather she is now better-known for Shameless, a series I haven’t seen.) She plays Mrs Norris as apparently sweet but always whispering spiteful comments to Fanny when she thinks nobody else is listening, a more understated performance than usual with Mrs Norris, but one which I thought worked well.
All in all, I don’t think this version comes any where near to either the Rozema film or the older BBC version with Sylvestra Le Touzel, but I still enjoyed seeing another take on MP.