Houseguest from Hell


At her best, Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park-Jane Austen’s third and most problematic
novel-displays remarkable forbearance. She endures innumerable slights and simply waits for the man she loves to recognize her affection. At her worst, Fanny’s an annoying little prig who lives like a servant in the home of her rich cousins. Patricia Rozema’s adaptation-based on the novel as well as “the author’s letters and early journals”-doesn’t merely invest Fanny with a more appealing inner life. As played by Frances O’Connor, Fanny has become a veritable Jane Austen Action Figure With Kung Fu Grip, galloping around during thunderstorms, frolicking with her beloved cleric-to-be cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), and taking her scary uncle (Harold Pinter) to task for his involvement in the slave trade. Fanny’s no longer a poor relation; she’s the houseguest from hell. Still, she seems positively polite compared to the spoiled, sybaritic Crawford siblings who bedazzle the entire household. Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz) fixes her eye on Edmund, much to Fanny’s chagrin, while her brother Henry (Alessandro Nivola) has the smug, sated look of the cat who’s eaten the canary, the vicar, the vicar’s daughter, and half the countryside. The Crawfords are so much fun, in fact, that you wonder why Fanny, hellion that she’s supposed to be, doesn’t throw her lot in with them. Anyone familiar with Austen’s world, though, knows the danger lurking within characters universally described as “most agreeable.” It’s a term that could also apply to Rozema’s movie, which, in trying so hard to entertain, ends up sabotaging itself.