Monday, March 19, 2007

ITV's Mansfield Park is stodgy fare, lacking style or substance

ITV’s Mansfield Park made for a very dull Sunday evening’s viewing. Maggie Wadey’s script was charmless and uninspiring, displaying zero critical edge, while Iain B Macdonald’s direction lacked finesse or imagination. Despite Macdonald’s penchant for hand-held camera-work and sudden bursts of energy, this filmic experience was lifeless, flat and one-paced. This was a shamefully lazy treatment of one of Austen’s darkest, most menacing and intriguing works. Mansfield Park describes a world fraught with moral and material dangers for poor Fanny Price, both inside and outside of her uncle’s estate.

Here too, Austen establishes a genuine dichotomy between opposing social ideologies. As Claire Tomalin succinctly puts it: ‘Mansfield Park … sets up an opposition between someone with strongly held religious and moral principles, who will not compromise them for any reason, will not consider a marriage that is not based on true feeling rather than opportunism, and is revolted by sexual immorality [Fanny Price]; and a group of worldly, highly cultivated, entertaining and well-to-do young people who pursue pleasure without regard for religious or moral principles.’ [Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life, 2000, p. 276]

In this novel, Austen has also invoked the potential for real human cruelty with a powerful cast of characters, amongst whom we have the likes of Mrs Norris, one of the greatest villains of literature. She is characterised by meanness, officiousness and sycophancy towards the powerful, and bullying of anyone she perceives to be in her power. She positively revels in Fanny’s lowly status. Meanwhile Lady Bertram is a supreme example of egoistic indolence and sloth, Sir Thomas Bertram is a morally dubious, authoritarian patriarch who himself must be 're-educated,'Tom Bertram is a selfish wastrel, his sisters Maria and Julia are vain and vapid, while his brother Edmund is a bloodless prig, with a highly developed capacity for romantic self-delusion.

Amidst this happy family we have the external ‘interlopers’ who threaten the stability and order of rule at Mansfield Park. Fanny Price, of course, is the timid yet steely bastion of moral propriety, who is at the heart of the story, but the Crawford siblings, Mary and Henry, pose the most interesting and dynamic challenge, effectively driving the narrative forwards.

The ITV Mansfield Park pays passing lip service to these gloriously rich and involving characterisations. This is not simply the fault of cramming a fat novel into a slim tele-film format, as is so often the defence of failed adaptation. It is because the script, the direction, and even in some cases, the cast, fail to breath life into these characters and narrative.

Billie Piper’s Fanny Price will no doubt be much discussed by critics and viewers. Her performance was competent if a little bland. No, she is not Austen’s Fanny. She runs amok, hair unkempt, a vision of blooming health and vigour far removed from Austen’s sickly heroine. But this alteration is hardly surprising, and I would argue, quite necessary, to enliven Austen’s Fanny in her transition from text to screen. Fanny has to become a more active protagonist to engage our interest. Even so, Piper’s Fanny did not particularly grab and hold my attention.

Fanny is in love with her cousin Edmund, played here by Blake Ritson, giving a pretty polished performance, truer to Austen’s novel in tone and manner. Which is probably why I couldn’t stand him - Edmund being for me, one of Austen’s most insufferably boring romantic heroes. Ritson had the look of a sleek, glossy blackbird with large, soulful, red-rimmed eyes, ultimately worn through by his love for what he deems a worthless woman (Mary Crawford). By the end of the tele-film, he wore a slightly haunted expression, and had become jumpy and panicked – so emotionally unbalanced, in fact, that he fell head over heels in love with Fanny for suggesting the usage of ‘purple’ over maroon thread to her Aunt. His sudden romantic epiphany at this moment provided me with the best and loudest laugh of the evening.

His brother Tom was seriously under-used, considering he was being played by the delectable James D’Arcy. On the plus side, we did cadge a prolonged glimpse of D’Arcy’s bare chest, the downside being that it was covered in large, slimy medicinal leeches at the time, supposedly to help drain away his alcohol-induced fever.

Douglas Hodge made for a fine enough Sir Thomas Bertram, for what was a remarkably conservative interpretation of the baronet, in view of his nefarious ‘business’ interests. Lady Bertram (Jemma Redgrave) was far too chirpy and perceptive, while the viciously venomous Mrs Norris was thoroughly de-clawed and de-toxed to the point of insipid by Maggie O’Neill here.

Michelle Ryan’s Maria Bertram was much highlighted in previews, due to her celebrity appeal as ex-Zoe Slater from Eastenders. Frankly, she might as well have posted in her photograph for this performance, rather than bother to show up, for all the impact she made here, in what is a crucial role in terms of plot development and the elucidation of Austen’s key themes, ideas and arguments. But then again, as there were no key themes, ideas or arguments in play in this adaptation, perhaps Maria’s cardboard cut-out character suffices perfectly well. All Michelle was required to do, it seemed, was to look pretty and alluring, which clearly comes very easily to her. But we had no sense of Maria's fierce greedy egoism, her driving ambition, her sexual competing, or indeed her tragic social imprisonment – key factors in Austen’s text.

As for Catherine Steadman as Julia, I rather liked her, but on reflection this might have been because her presence was so utterly negligible amidst this tripe, that I cannot now for the life of me even recall her face.

Fanny’s brother William (Joseph Morgan) had a small part to play in this adaptation – which was quite a relief actually, as he seemed remarkably irritating, only just saved by a hysterically silly ‘Seaman’s’ dance, performed at Fanny’s birthday picnic.

As for the Crawfords. This pair lacked the genuine charm and allure that Austen’s text requires of them. They must represent a very real and exciting threat, an alternative moral universe for Fanny and Edmund. But here, Joseph Beattie’s Henry Crawford was a pudding-faced fellow with floppy hair, failing to emanate even an iota of Henry’s magnetism and sexual charisma – a feat the original Henry achieves, in spite of his lack of conventional good looks.

Mary Crawford, one of Austen’s most beguiling inventions, was played here by stunning Hayley Atwell, who toiled valiantly onwards with a limp and lifeless script, but she failed to delight. Most annoying, her costumes were almost always red, (or reddish), graduating to moody black by the end, with dangly red earrings. Such a tired old cliché. Clearly the red represented her danger, her passion, her sexuality – all those well-worn cinematic tropes. Meanwhile sweet little Fanny swanned around in pretty pale blues and wholesome colours. A delicate feminine contrast to Mary’s overtly coloured costumes.

One thing that puzzled me was the Crawfords’ seeming lack of a home of their own, as we never saw the parsonage. There they were, forever roaming the grounds of Mansfield Park, bitching about its occupants, but we never saw where they were walking to. Were they just circling aimlessly, in an endless Stygian purgatory? Were they perhaps camping out in Sir Bertram’s hedgerows? Was there really a world beyond Mansfield Park? Were they all trapped in their own Mansfield Park time-space continuum?

It certainly felt that way. Indeed, the lack of extra locations began to make me feel clostraphobic, even queasy – particularly that nasty pink drawing room. Plus, by excising all external environments, (perhaps as a budget-saving device), we lost some key narrative sequences, most particularly Fanny’s punishing exile to Portsmouth, in retaliation for refusing Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal. In such a way, we never saw the grime, hardship and squalor of her family’s life in contrast to the smooth luxuries of Mansfield Park. Fanny’s thinking is strongly influenced by this material disparity. And our awareness of socio-economic and class distinction in Regency Britain is sharply focused by these scenes too, which is refreshing and unusual in the Austen canon.

But this was far too interesting to be included in this adaptation. So instead we had to make do with Fanny’s languishing alone and bored in a vast and splendid mansion with sumptuous gardens, whilst the Bertram family peeled off in their separate directions, going to places we were never allowed to see. Billie Piper puffed out her lips bravely, and we tried very, very hard to feel her misery, amidst such glorious surroundings and sweet tranquillity.

The simple truth is some omissions, some deviations from text to screen really do matter. The plot loses dramatic momentum. Characters lose credibility. And this was a glaring example, even though I’m the last person, believe me, to scrutinise adaptations with pursed lips, pen poised, pedantically cross-referencing a long checklist of essential scenes and lines from the original with the filmic version, tutt-tutting when this bit or that bit has been omitted or changed by the adaptor.

No. I want to be entertained, stimulated, to be swept up in the whole filmic experience. This is what I want foremost. And that means we need, above all, narrative coherence and dynamism, and a sense of truth in the portrayal of characters. If an adaptation fails in this regard, then, quite simply, it has failed to make the transition from text to screen – as is the case with this version of Mansfield Park, which was frankly turgid, lacking suspense or style.

It is also hard to believe that such a critically vacuous version of Mansfield Park has been produced in this particular year when we are celebrating the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery, which, in the light of postcolonial discourses is a very live issue in Austen’s Mansfield Park. Esteemed postcolonial critics such as Edward Said have identified Mansfield Park as a key text in displaying the reliance of English society and wealth on Imperial adventures and the pernicious legacy of the slave trade. We also know that Austen herself opposed slavery and read Thomas Clarkson, a chief proponent for abolition, who wrote The Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1808. Indeed, Mansfield Park itself might well be named after the Mansfield Agreement (1772) which was ushered in by the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Mansfield, concerning James Somerset, a black slave brought to England. A question was raised regarding Somerset’s status. Could he still be owned by his master on English soil? A ruling was enforced in Somerset’s favour: ‘It was resolved that England was too pure an air for slaves to breathe in … the moment they put their feet on English ground they are free.’ Jane Austen actually met Lord Mansfield’s niece at the home of her brother Edward Knight, and in view of her usage of the name Mansfield, surely it cannot then be a further coincidence, that in the novel, Fanny Price constantly craves clean, fresh air, ‘the free air and liberty of the country.’

In my opinion this ITV adaptation badly misses a trick. Rather than enhance the potential for a relevant and timely postcolonial interpretation of the novel, excepting a couple of very small references (including Sir Thomas’s walking cane with its decorative carved black slave head), the producers have opted instead for powder-puff pastiche. Was it fear of alienating their audience with what could be deemed as an overtly politicised approach? Or simply uninspired filmmaking?

Personally, I believe it was the latter.

This was Adaptation by Numbers, approached by adaptors with absolutely nothing interesting to say whatsoever about Austen’s Mansfield Park, motivated mainly by the broadcaster’s desire to play ‘safe’ and accrue some easily digestible Cultural Capital in the face of the BBC’s prestigious reputation in this department. Adaptation can be exciting and challenging. It is a tribute not a snub to an author – even a well-loved and revered one like Austen – when adaptors reinterpret, reinvent, and challenge the original text. They enter into a genuine interactive dialogue with that text which actually serves to keep a text alive and fresh and consistently relevant – even if the resultant reading of that text courts controversy or fails to delight filmically. At least there is an effort to actually ‘adapt’.

Indeed, such an effort is entirely and honourably necessary, simply because novels and films are entirely different mediums, behaving in completely different ways, and our consumption of them differs too. Therefore a truly successful filmic adaptation is a pretty remarkable achievement, although often the best adaptations cannot stay ‘faithful’ to the source text, mainly deriving inspiration and shape from the original. However, even those adaptations that purport to be ‘literary’, with pretensions to fidelity, can never stay ‘true’ – and nor should they. If a viewer wants to ‘see’ an entire book on screen, far better to re-read the novel and then summon up one’s own powers of imagination. It’s a less frustrating and more honest exercise all round. Better to simply kick back and enjoy a film or TV drama for what it is.

My frustration with the ITV’s Mansfield Park is I couldn’t even do this, despite its being a piece of harmless heritage fluff, because I had a huge emotional disconnect with these characters. Their relationships felt detached, staged and untrue. Dialogue felt wooden and forced. Stage directions lacked energy and verve. And, importantly perhaps, there was minimal erotic zing between Fanny and Edmund – which in truth adheres more closely to the source text, but let’s face it, makes for very dull television. There were further functional elements at fault here. The credits and signage were irritatingly twee and floral. And the musical scoring was strangely intrusive and entirely grating. Plus, I felt I was suffocating in the richly palatial confines of Mansfield Park. I craved fresh air, I craved liberty, I even craved the ad breaks, and I was so very relieved when the final credits rolled.

Next week I will be reviewing ITV’s Northanger Abbey, for which I have much higher hopes already.


Anonymous said...

This is just what I said myself, but much more elaborately worded! A very dull film that lacked wit, charm, style and clearly had no vision for what it wanted to achieve.

Gallivant said...

Yes, you sum it up perfectly!
'A very dull film that lacked wit, charm, style and clearly had no vision for what it wanted to achieve.'

Chrissy said...

Quite right! Especially this part... His brother Tom was seriously under-used, considering he was being played by the delectable James D’Arcy. On the plus side, we did cadge a prolonged glimpse of D’Arcy’s bare chest...

Gallivant said...

Oh yes. More James D'Arcy might have lifted this mediocrity a little .... We don't get to see enough of him these days unfortunately. He's always been an actor I rather rate.

arnique said...

The only reason I'd watch ITV's MP is covered in leeches? Bah. Never mind. If only James D'arcy would be given a series on the Beeb!