Mansfield Park (1999): English Innocence.

 

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What is it that gives me such hope about British films? After watching endless protracted dramas and crime films made in US, one becomes jaded, almost immune to blood and guts, torture and the deviousness of the worldly mind.

Why do we watch them you may ask? Waiting for another mutilated body or packaged body-part, a dank basement masquerading as a graveyard, a filthy bathroom, rampant sex acts or mental health problems, becomes a way of life on modern TV channels. But I believe that present American film directors are fixated on blood and filth because those aspects of human life which are normally hidden need to be fully illuminated. We are living in an age of what Buddhists would call ‘hungry ghosts’ and depravity after all, and we need to confront that full-on.

 

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So, after such inurement, ‘Mansfield Park’ set in early and relatively innocent 19th century England, will lift the spirit, will bring on a deep sigh of relief. Of course, in this story horrors and unfairnesses, poverty and life exigencies abound but the principal message is one of hope and light. Protagonist Fanny Price, sent away from her poor docks’ home at the age of 10 to serve the wealthy branch of her family, is heavily oppressed because of her class. In spite of this gross handicap, in the end she wins the true love and status she clearly deserves and we are gratified.

 

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This setting of one of my favourite Jane Austen novels, truly lifted my heart after a spate of subjecting myself to deep cinematic darkness. Being British by birth, I am not proud of the British class system or the societal havoc reeked by the Industrial Revolution in any way, but somehow the light always manages to get through in British culture. This story is a fairy story which the British are so in tune with.

The beautiful and talented Fanny is marooned in a poor home although her imagination is rich and she entertains her siblings by writing stories and histories prolifically. The family is overburdened financially and so it is agreed between her mother and her mother’s sister that Fanny will be sent to Mansfield Park to act as a servant and get an education in the meantime.

Having arrived there, Fanny is devastated at being treated as an outcast and being given a neglected attic as her bedroom. She sorely misses her family’s genuine love but she almost immediately meets Edmund, her cousin, who tries to comfort her with jokes. It is then that their love is kindled and becomes a bond made for life.

 

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But there are many shadows cast amidst the sunshine and brilliance of the central figure and her deeply pious Edmund. For instance, Sir Thomas Bertram, Baronet, the owner of Mansfield Park, runs a plantation in Antigua and with it a great number of black slaves at a time when slavery is starting to be abolished. Tom Bertram is a drunk, a gambler, and eventually becomes gravely ill due to his reckless lifestyle. Lady Bertram is vague and distracted, addicted to laudanum and lap dogs, and her sister Mrs Norris who is a skinflint and total snob persists in keeping Fanny in her place. Henry Crawford is a lusty bachelor who falls in love with Fanny but she refuses to accept his dubious morality.

 

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At one point, grown tired of her social oppression and the demands being made of her by Sir Thomas to marry a wealthy man she does not love, Fanny decides to return home. Then the class contrast becomes patently obvious. She is once more marooned in a dirty environment, presided over by a drunken father whose dark family secrets are palpable in the eyes of the girl-children. And now, she deeply misses Edmund who is betrothed to be married to someone of his own class.
The gay balls and elegant dancing suit Fanny so well once she returns to Mansfield Park to care for son Thomas who is declining rapidly, and as luck would have it, she confronts Sir Thomas with his exploitation of slaves while Edmund steadily realizes his mismatch. Eventually, his betrothed, Miss Mary Crawford, Henry’s sister, reveals her true meddlesome and insincere nature to the whole family, and Edmund breaks off their engagement and listens to his heart. He immediately proposes to Fanny and plans to publish all her literary works.

 

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This is truly a rags-to-riches story and Fanny is perhaps the most compelling of all Austen’s heroines. The light created by this wonderful story comes flooding through and reminds us that we too have a True Nature and should never lose track of our dreams and native knowing.

Watch this film soon. It is oozing with period accuracy and attentiveness to the original text to lift you easily into the saddle of your heart. Fanny is a weaver of tales so reminiscent of Jane Austen’s herself.

 

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Images courtesy of imdb.com (Internet Movie Data Base) and megapixyl.com

 

 

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