5 min

Womansfield Park

Strange bedfellows haunt English manors

"I HAD TO FIGHT FOR THOSE SCENES." Toronto filmmaker Patricia Rozema says the homoerotic scenes in her new adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park were contentious and crucial. Credit: Tony Fong

At first glance, Patricia Rozema and Jane Austen look like the strangest of strange bedfellows.

What’s the local hero of alternative, gay cinema (whose credits include the groundbreaking I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing from 1987 and 1994’s When Night Is Falling) doing with the ultimate icon of English Regency, the writer of domestic fiction about women in pursuit of well-to-do men?

But as anyone who reads Austen carefully (and two decades of feminist and political rethinking of her work) will realize, Rozema is the best thing to happen to Austen in a long time – at least on film.

Rozema’s magnificent adaptation of the complex novel, Mansfield Park, is pure Austen in its examination of the holy trinity of love, money and marriage. It’s a welcome departure from the long list of film and television adaptations that have created the so-called Austen-mania of the mid-1990s.

Examine the evidence: In 1995 and 1996 alone, there were six film and television versions of Jane Austen’s novels, including Emma Thompson’s Sense And Sensibility, the Gwen Paltrow vehicle Emma, and BBC’s Pride And Prejudice and Persuasion.

“I liked them. But no more,” says a radiant-looking Rozema. “I didn’t feel like: ‘Ah. This is the filmmaking I’d like to do. This is what I was put on earth for.’ They were kind’a pretty.

“Emma,” she quickly adds, “I particularly didn’t like and thought was so saccharine. I was really afraid of getting anywhere near that in my film.”

Rozema also takes into account the proliferation of costume dramas in the past 15 years or so; a genre that peaked with the pristine Merchant-Ivory dramatization of EM Forster’s Howard’s End in 1992. “For lots of people, period pieces are an opportunity to look at some nice furniture and some clothing and hairstyles you don’t see on the street every day,” says Rozema. “They call it costume drama; what could be less dramatic?”

Visually elaborate, these costume dramas also tap into a nostalgic desire for a more genteel, safe time, removed from the violence and brutality of ours.

In Austen’s case, in particular, nothing could be further from the truth. She lived through a most turbulent phase in English history, when fear of a French invasion reached hysteric proportions. English towns and countryside were hardly safe (London alone had more than 100,000 criminals and highway bandits terrorized travellers).

Neither are the brushed-up portraits of Austen, as a nice old lady spinning fictions in her drawing room, any more accurate. The most cursory reading of Austen’s few surviving letters reveals a woman filled with financial anxieties and professional jealousies. Her bitterness and resentment, shocking even by the most vicious drag queen standards, left Austen’s family no option but to destroy her journals and letters after her death in 1817.

Rozema’s adaptation, which draws on Austen’s life and remaining letters, places the emphasis firmly on the emotional development of her Cinderella-like protagonist Fanny Price, the poor relation of the rich Bertram family of Mansfield Park. (Fanny is captured beautifully by Australian actor Frances O’Conner.) The film is rich in texture and visual nuances, but restrained.

Working closely with gay production designer Christopher Hobbs (the man behind the glam rock of Velvet Goldmine), Rozema sought a look that matched the book’s darker undercurrents.

“We went to all these stately homes that were stuffed and over-pretty and I said right from the beginning: ‘No floral patterns.’ I spoke about a flat gold, tarnished, very tarnished, look.” The country house in Mansfield Park is more decaying than decadent; there’s no hiding, for example, the squalor and unsanitary conditions of the impoverished Price household.

While other adaptations focus on Regency life as a party, Rozema is more interested in the economic basis of the party. “My image was of the Titanic – I hope it wasn’t from advertising – but of playing music and dining elegantly while the whole ship was going down.”

Sir Thomas Bertram is the patriarch at Mansfield Park and a colonial abuser in the West Indies where he owns a slave-driven sugar plantation. Between the two worlds stands Fanny Price. “[Austen] was creating a character who was the perfect slave. She was creating a personality for Fanny Price that was deferential and quiet, fearful of criticism,” Rozema explains.

One of the reasons Mansfield Park is considered Austen’s least successful novel stems from the unlikely combination of Fanny’s absolute moral rigidity and her submissiveness.

“I don’t make her some kind of superwoman. She’s still not a catalyst. She’s still very passive in the story,” says Rozema. “The basic rule of contemporary filmmaking and story writing is that you have to have your character active – and she’s not. All I did was to bring outside elements that aren’t far outside – they are from Jane Austen’s life and from her other writing – and added layers to Fanny Price, so that we in the audience at least get this privileged view of her inner life.”

Fanny’s resolution is put to the test with the arrival of the thoroughly modern (for 1806) brother and sister team, Mary and Henry Crawford. As portrayed by Allesandro Nivola, Henry is a beautiful rogue with just enough vulnerability to make his attraction to Fanny believable.

Mary, on the other hand, is a more complex character, not least because she’s attracted to Edmund, Fanny’s cousin and true love, and, in two homoerotic scenes, to Fanny herself. These scenes, Rozema points out, show up consistently as both “most liked” and “least liked” scenes in test screenings.

“It’s definitely in the book. And that was part of my attraction to Mansfield Park because I knew I could indulge myself in a couple of scenes,” says Rozema. “The lesbian frisson is character development for Mary. She’s very worldly, she’s been around the block. Who knows where she’s been and where’s she’s going? It’s not completely clear.”

As well as giving Mary’s character credence, these scenes tell a more dramatic story about Rozema’s pride and an industry’s prejudice. “I had to fight for those scenes. I had to make a big speech at one point,” she says, passionately. “People have seen my films before. And if they come to this movie and I’ve taken these scenes out – and I couldn’t – or really tampered them in a major way, I’d look like a fraud, that I’m not acknowledging where I’ve been and where I’ve come from.

“It was really important for me to keep them in – not just as an acknowledgment to my audience, but to me. Otherwise the whole enterprise could feel like a sell-out, [like] standing outside myself for a bit of commercial gain or fame.”

Say what you will about Rozema, no one can accuse her of not choosing her battles; her pride is tempered with a common sense approach that’s, sadly, missing from most radical interpretations of Austen. Rozema, for instance, doesn’t buy into recent claims by gay scholar Terry Castle that Austen had a lesbian, incestuous relationship with her sister, Cassandra.

“I find that a bit of a stretch to tell you the truth,” she says with a calm laughter. “It smacks a little bit of the gay desire to say that everybody is gay. When I hear that about celebrities, I kind of wait until I get to meet them before I make the assumption.”

Rozema’s attitude to celebrities is also evident in her casting choices for Mansfield Park. Though some may look familiar, none can be called a bankable star – which may work against Mansfield Park’s box office potential in the star-obsessed US market.

Rozema is unperturbed: “You believe that they are all these characters,” she says, zoning in on one of the film’s most refreshing angles. “You don’t have to make that little leap that we always do: Here’s Brad Pitt playing someone we’ve never met before. Yeah, right!

“Celebrity culture can be distracting,” says Rozema, who was raised in a relatively austere Dutch Calvinist tradition. “I grew up with the language of scripture around me. [Austen’s] ornate dialogue has a kind of a thrill for me.”

From strange bedfellows to soul mates, the Austen-Rozema alliance defies all rules and expectations. But then again, isn’t this what great art all about?

Mansfield Park opens Fri, Nov 19 in wide release.