I knew the 1983 BBC production of Mansfield Park had the reputation of being long and faithful to Austen’s novel, which are not necessarily good things considering the novel’s own reputation as being … difficult. However, I enjoyed MP and have enjoyed the 2005 and 1999 adaptations, despite complaints that the Fanny Price depicted in no represented Fanny Price as written. (More about the 1999 version in another post.)
Poor Fanny, many despise her timidity and rigidity, but I like her because I often suffer from those same complaints. And it is such a curious story because at times you want to read her as a Cinderella, but apart from the hateful Aunt Norris, the Bertram family is really quite kind to her. Maria and Julia are never the wicked step sisters and Lady Bertram is certainly. And Mary Crawford — delightful Mary Crawford — is certainly not a villain. Even Henry Crawford, who is closest to the villain of the story, is a tragic figure because we can’t help but wonder if he would have been improved by Fanny’s love. It’s almost as if Jane Austen purposefully set out to write a novel that would confuse our conceptions of hero and villain and incense us as to rightness of the match between Edmund and Fanny.
But back to this adaptation: It is long. It is faithful. And Fanny, as portrayed by Sylvestra Le Touzel, has none of the fire of Frances O’Connor (1999) or Billie Piper (2005). This 1983 Fanny has dark circles under her eyes (at least it seems that way watching the movie on YouTube) and has the posture of a scolded puppy; and I can’t imagine what the dashing Henry Crawford (looking too much of a dandy as played by Robert Burbage) might see in her. Edmund Bertam, played by Nicholas Farrell, does appear much older than Fanny, but I think he does properly display the unconscious love of his cousin.
And through it all I remained amused by the casting of Gorden Kaye, whom you may know from ’Allo, ’Allo, as Dr. Grant, a character who normally gets few lines in most adaptations. Of course, as bizarre as I found it to see the innkeeper/partisan René in the film, the most bizarre portrayal was Angela Pleasence as Lady Bertram. The 1999 version showed Lady Bertram quaffing laudanum, but this Lady Bertram must have had an IV drip of the opium derivative. She was hysterically perfect.
But I was most touched by Bernard Hepton as Sir Thomas Bertram. His performance, far beyond all others, made me wonder what events in Antigua changed him. (And I will ignore until that later post the slavery sub plot of the 1999 version.) Fanny supposedly blossoms after the departure of Maria and Julia, but I don’t think that explains Sir Thomas’ new found appreciation of his niece. Of course, I have not yet reached the scenes where Sir Thomas will pressure Fanny to consider Henry Crawford’s proposal, but I would be surprised if his performance is much out of character to the novel.