Movie Review - Mansfield Park (1983)

NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.
David Giles
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

Why do people love Jane Austen? For her wit; for her lively heroines; perhaps for her heroes’ proposals and confessions of long attachment. Probably not for her insipid or unsympathetic side characters; nor for her sexual-immorality subplots; nor her abrupt endings. The BBC’s Mansfield Park has none of the first, and all of the second, and yet people like it. Now why is that? Because there are people who love Jane Austen, and then there are people who love Jane Austen, and I think it’s pretty generally understood that, to spend five valuable hours of your life watching a version of Mansfield Park that was made for television in the early ‘80’s, you have to love Jane Austen… or you have to be a film reviewer. I think there’s little room for anybody else in this club.

Sexual Content:
For starters, no men are allowed. The costumes are just too immodest. No children, because of references to mistresses and the “loss of innocence”; and no one who is not quite comfortable enough with the evolution of the English language over the last couple of centuries to be entirely persuaded that the line, “Which gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?” referred merely to an actress’ task of reciting romantic lines to a fellow player.

There are a couple of kisses which bear the distinction of making you forget for a little while the indecency of the actors’ situation, in favor of a more lasting shock at the brazenness of the characters. Two unmarried couples run away in this story; one to Scotland, where it may be supposed they intend to marry straight away; and one to who-knows-where—the best place to avoid discovery by the woman’s husband. There are, according to tradition, some immodest and even undressed statues about the house, and what would a Jane Austen movie be without hand-holding during English dances?

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
What would it be without the alcohol, either? As was to be expected, wine is served, but more than that, the story brings in a cousin who nearly dies of drink, and a father who can never be imagined to be sober (though a member of a Christian church). The father is shown both drinking and drunk, and, incidentally, smoking a pipe. Gambling at cards is brought up.

There are the usual British euphemisms, “By Jove” and “By George,” and miscellaneous frustrated or surprised references to the devil, heaven and hanging it all. Not content with disguising the inappropriate uses of God’s name or exclamations of damnation, however, the writer has included both in their original forms… several times*.

At the beginning of the movie, there were some remarks made about “superfluity of children” and how fortunate the main character is to be leaving her family in her childhood, but as they were made by a character we’re not supposed to think particularly well of, it hardly seemed anything to be worth being concerned about… until later episodes, in which Fanny’s own mother (as little worthy of respect as any other mother in the film) seems to second the conviction. Indeed, Fanny’s mother is consistently portrayed as being ignorant and pulled in all directions, always complaining about how she never has time for anything; her father is the drunkard; her siblings hardly do anything but run through the house and bicker; and the minute they all get into the house, everyone begins yelling at everyone else. Needless to say, they bring no dignity to their state of poverty, or to Fanny.

There is, after all, one mother who is worthy of great respect, and I had almost failed to include her. She is mentioned in a Christmas song as “God’s mother”—a phrase that has incited much controversy within the Church. Similarly, Cowper’s statement “that there lives and works a soul in all things, and that soul is God,” though intended to communicate a biblical doctrine (Providence, in this case), may be misunderstood by younger viewers to refer to a kind of pantheism. In this film, the word “unlucky” is likewise probably intended to communicate something other than the offensive doctrine of the power of chance. There are several lines involving the concept of consulting one’s heart, and the statement is made that we all have a better guide in ourselves than anyone else can ever be, but they, too, were not meant as they might conceivably be taken. “Sacrifices to the gods” was said jokingly by somebody we’re not even supposed to like.

Fanny’s brother, lighthearted as ever, appears to take delight in the hope that he will soon gain promotion by the unfortunate death of his superior officer in the next battle.

Well, I have said that there are those who love Jane Austen, and those who love Jane Austen. The next question, I suppose, is, what is your position on the matter? Five hours is a long time, and there’s little that could be said in favor of the movie that someone wouldn’t disagree with, beyond that it is apparently very faithful to the original novel. There is nothing of the wit or comedy many have come to associate with the author, and there is almost everything of the low-budget artistic inferiority we associate with the production company—at least, as it was in the ‘80’s. If you really love Jane Austen, or if you tend to enjoy costume-drama miniseries like this one; if you’ve got five hours to spare, and if you’re a woman of twelve years of age or more, you probably qualify for membership in the Mansfield Park enjoyment club. Besides, if you find you like the first couple of episodes, there’s a good chance you’ll like the remaining four; if not, you’re in no way obliged to watch the rest of it… unless you’re a film reviewer, of course.

* “D---” occurs in the second episode, just after Fanny says to Mr. Rushworth about the gate, “There’s a little space, you see.” It also occurs in the last episode, after Fanny’s father says to Mr. Crawford, “The surgeon saved that leg.”

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