Part III: Mansfield Park, cont’d.

I just finished watching MP83, an adaptation starring Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny, Nicholas Farrell as Edmund, Bernard Hepton as Sir Thomas, Angela Pleasance as Lady Bertram and Anna Massey as Mrs. Norris.  I’d only seen it once before, and that was about 10 years ago, so I watched it this time with an almost completely fresh perspective.

Unfortunately, this miniseries does suffer from the sad production values that plagued the adaptations of the 60s, 70s and 80s.  The costumes aren’t very pretty (what were they thinking with Lady Bertam’s headgear?????), and the wigs are generally atrocious (Mr. Yates looks like he’s wearing some sort of rodent on his head).  For good screencaps of the characters, check out Marspeach’s review of MP83.  But, back in the 60s, 70s and 80s we didn’t know any better, so I am fully able to overlook the appearance of the piece and focus on the substance. And yes, there is quite a bit of substance here.

First the actors.  Most people don’t like Sylvestra Le Touzel’s Fanny, but I happen to.  She is somewhat physically awkward, but I think she does that to bring out Fanny’s insecurities. Towards the end of the piece, when she is shown just how much she is needed (in Portsmouth and again upon her return to Mansfield Park), she is far less awkward and more graceful.  Nicholas Farrell (whom I first saw as Aubrey in Chariots of Fire) does a good job as Edmund.  His hair is dreadful, but I like his actual performance.

The first time I was “introduced” to Bernard Hepton was when he played Archbishop Cranmer in both The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth R.  In MP83, he is excellent as always; he brings out the essential goodness in Sir Thomas.  I particularly like how we can actually see him losing patience with Mrs. Norris and realizing just how pernicious and sycophantic she is.  I also like Angela Pleasance as Lady Bertram; she really brings out an aspect of the character I noticed when I read the book this time – that she knows more about the goings-on at Mansfield Park than she lets on, and that she and Sir Thomas have a better marriage than I used to think.  It’s obvious that he confides in her and she does care about him and her children.  But I must ask what is the point with the thumb-sucking?  That’s just bizarre.

Samantha Bond is a terrific Maria.  Henry Crawford creeps me out as does, by the way, Mary.  Their matching wigs are so unattractive and Mary is supposed to be beautiful, but she really isn’t anything out of the ordinary here.

But no discussion of MP83 would be complete without mentioning just how wonderful Anna Massey is in the role of Mrs. Norris.  When I first saw her as the pathetic Lady Laura Kennedy in The Pallisers, little did I know that she would be so outstanding as the evil, twisted woman who flatters the wealthy, powerful Bertrams and emotionally abuses her poor, innocent niece Fanny.  I cannot say enough about how good she is in this role and have no compunction in saying I think she is the definitive Mrs. Norris.  We know that Jo Rowling named Argus Filch’s unlikable cat after this Austen character, and Anna Massey shows us why.

As for the production itself, it is full of things I liked, such as the discussions between Mary, Henry and Mr. Rushworth concerning “improvements” at Sotherton and Everingham especially after having learned something over the years about Austen’s thinking about “improvements” to one’s property.  We know from Pride and Prejudice that one of the things Elizabeth notices about Darcy’s estate at Pemberley is that it has not been “improved” and that it is not of the latest style in appearance.  The English upper classes were very interested in landscaping during this period, and it was all the rage to hire famous landscapers to “improve” their estates.  We understand that the Darcys did not do this at Pemberley, and this is something we are intended to approve.  We are not, however, supposed to approve of Henry and Mr. Rushworth’s interest in re-doing the landscaping of their respective estates to be more fashionable.  We know from these scenes that Mr. Rushworth is not very bright and wants to “keep up with the Joneses” er, Crawfords, and that Henry is very superficial.

Once Sir Thomas comes back from Antigua, he seems to be much more aware of just how awful Mrs. Norris is and just how good Fanny is.  In this production, I particularly liked the scene when Mrs. Norris decides she wants to go to Portsmouth but Lady Bertram tells her she’ll have to pay for her own return trip.  Sir Thomas looks over at Mrs. Norris while she decides not to go visit her poor dear sister Price after all and you can almost think that he is restraining himself from rolling his eyes at her.

Besides the atrocious wigs and makeup (why is Tom orange when he returns from Antigua?) there really isn’t much to dislike about this adaptation, but a few things do stand out – this adaptation does not include the discussion between Sir Thomas and Maria about her upcoming marriage when he asks her point-blank if she wants out.  I also missed the scene from the book where Fanny discovers that the necklace from Mary/Henry does not fit William’s cross but the chain from Edmund does.  I was particularly disappointed that the latter scene was omitted because this adaptation is otherwise so faithful to the book.  One made-up scene did not appeal to me – and it concerns Maria and Henry.  I didn’t think we needed to see the two of them kissing in Maria’s home at Wimpole Street and her mother-in-law finding them.  We see this scene before Fanny herself is told what has happened — I don’t think I would have minded as much if the scene had been put in after Fanny knows.

This adaptation also reminds me that, while many say that Austen never wrote a scene in which a woman was not present, this is not completely accurate.  The scene where Sir Thomas tells Tom that he has been so profligate that Edmund will lose the living at Mansfield does not have a woman present.  I did not notice it in the book, but I definitely did notice it here.  I checked the book (chapter 3) and, as far as I can tell, there is no woman present during this very brief conversation.

All in all, I like this production very much and look forward to seeing it again.