Jane Austen's fourth novel is still an A-level favourite in schools, but it's rarely a hit with students, who struggle with its turgid prose and oddly unlikeable characters. Arty Canadian director Patricia Rozema has done a good job of dragging Austen's most serious work into the 21st century while keeping its integrity intact. She has brought out the background of slavery from between the novel's lines and emphasised the youth and burgeoning sexuality of the main characters. Her adaptation ditches the book's self-righteous, drippy Fanny and makes her a writer forged from elements of Austen's own letters. It's well-researched, funny and profound stuff.
Cast-wise, instead of simpering Paltrows and girlie Winslets, we get a full set of sturdy performances from actors who look like real people. No one except the divinely puckish Alessandro Nivola (Henry Crawford) merits special praise, and the only real problem here is that O'Connor and Miller have little on-screen chemistry.
Rozema is not interested in period clothes or manners: the camera work is anything but stuffy, the colours natural, the dilemmas contemporary and the dialogue witty as hell. If there is a flaw, it's that, instead of using the love-story genre restrictions as a crucible for invention, Rozema occasionally ignores them, and at times we're left feeling strangely cheated. Example: toward the end of the film, Fanny and Edmund share a delicious almost-kiss. Instead of then giving us an insight into their embarrassment, Rozema plunges directly into the "sewing everything up"' bit. Worse, she decides to make the grand finale tongue-in-cheek.
Rozema knows we know they're going to get together, but instead of going with the pull of the romance she decides to give Fanny an irritating voice-over and a cat's-got-the-cream grin that completely undercuts the pay-off. We're supposed to believe that Fanny spent her adolescence gagging for her cousin but it just doesn't wash. The result of all this is that, as entertainment, Mansfield Park is enjoyable. But at times it's not sure if it wants to be grand romance, comedy of manners or social comment.
The most boring Austen novel gets a zippy new look for the cinema. It's smart, funny and occasionally poignant. But don't expect the joyful abandon of Sense And Sensibility: this is an altogether more complicated beast.