She’s No Fanny Price, But Who Is?

Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park , from the novel by Jane Austen, is not what one would call a faithful adaptation of a literary classic. Quite the contrary, it’s more a Patricia Rozema movie or, rather, an Austen movie with more Austen in it than Austen put in herself. Indeed, this adaptation should have been retitled The Jane Austen Story , particularly since the novel’s problematic and sickly heroine, Fanny Price, has been rewritten from Austen’s letters and biographies to resemble an idealized and updated portrait of the genius Jane herself as admiringly imagined by Ms. Rozema. To complete the transformation, Ms. Rozema has cast the overpoweringly exuberant Australian beauty Frances O’Connor in the role of the onetime shrinking violet Fanny, an act similar to casting the feisty Renée Zellweger as Charles Dickens’ Little Nell.

Still, it is no accident that Mansfield Park has taken this long to come to the screen. The same people who swoon over the heroines of Sense and Sensibility , Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, make faces when they confront the prospect of seeing Fanny Price materialize on the screen. Fanny is no Elizabeth Bennett, no Elinor Dashwood, no Anne Elliot. Fanny, as written, is Cinderella without the good looks and the golden slipper. Fanny, as acted by Ms. O’Connor, outshines everyone on the screen except Embeth Davidtz, another beauty, well cast as the elegantly conniving Mary Crawford.

Despite the fact that Fanny and Mary are rivals for the love of the same man, as well as philosophical opposites in the moral universe of Mansfield Park , Ms. Rozema subjects the two characters to an embarrassingly coy quasi-lesbian dressing room scene. There is also a nude adultery sequence involving Maria Bertram (Victoria Hamilton) and Fanny’s rejected suitor Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola). But these are minor distractions in the midst of a major betrayal of what Austen seemed to be attempting in Fanny’s arduous search for sincerity as defined by Lionel Trilling’s seminal essay on the novel.

Yet, as Trilling has observed, Mansfield Park rejects many of the modern values of the supposedly liberated self. These are the same values to which Ms. Rozema has dedicated her career in her previous films, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) and When Night Is Falling (1995). By contrast, Austen was all about the constraints of society interacting with free but prudent spirits. Ms. Rozema has professed to find in Austen a long-closeted feminist and anarchist, and I can’t say that I find her radical revisionism entirely fruitless. Even so, I much prefer what the much maligned Merchant-Ivory team extracted from E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View (1986) and Howards End (1992). These worthy gentlemen are apparently never to be forgiven for disproving the prevailing industry wisdom that literary classics had no commercial future in the dumbed-down movie marketplace.

I would advise my readers to see the movie, then read or reread the book, and then read the Trilling essay in The Opposing Self (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978). At the very least, Mansfield Park is thoroughly entertaining as a now mysterious Cinderella story driven by motivations shifting back and forth from Austen’s time to our own.

35 Years Later, Apted’s 7-Year-olds

Michael Apted’s 42 Up is clearly the most remarkable nonfiction film project in the history of the medium and officially the most temporally ambitious. In 1964, 22-year-old Michael Apted, a British television researcher, was sent across England to select 14 children, all age 7, to be interviewed for a program ostensibly designed to test the Jesuit maxim: “Give me the child at 7, and I will show you the man.” Mr. Apted now concedes 35 years later that the original selection was skewered both by gender with 10 boys and only four girls, and by class, with the extremes, high and low, overrepresented, and the vast and emerging middle class underrepresented. The motivation was obviously leftwardly political in its highlighting of class differences.

Somehow the 14 original subjects were revisited every seven years for an updating on film. At one point, I noted that the upper-class kids who sounded like twits at 7 compared to the more spontaneous and more lovable lower-class kids, became more interesting and self-confident as they raced past their social inferiors. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Class, wealth and social position did matter, alas, and there was no getting around it. Now with 42 Up on the verge of a new millennium, three of the 14, two upper class, have withdrawn from the project.

In Britain the series has been restricted to television, but in New York it is being released as a movie at the indispensable Film Forum, and an enthralling movie it is. Some of the British critics compared it to The Truman Show , which even now is fading from memory next to the real-life frisson of the long-running 42 Up . You don’t have to have seen the previous five installments to be moved by the existential anguish of growing up and becoming middle-aged on film. For one who has grown old watching my British brothers and sisters whirling around on the machine, I am grateful to them, to Mr. Apted and his collaborators, and to British television for this vicarious journey through time.

Class, wealth and social position matter a great deal, but the dramas and traumas of life itself have taken center stage. What once seemed like pressing social issues have been supplanted by metaphysical concerns. Such scrutiny of one’s destiny on film is hardly an unmixed blessing, and Mr. Apted never pretends that it is. His doubts and scruples do him honor, and you can’t help loving the members of his extended family. After all, 42 Up is an even bigger chunk of his life than it is of theirs. I recommend it without reservation.

Another Last Night On Earth

Don McKellar’s Last Night is an almost comically understated account of what happens to several people on the last night of the earth’s existence in Toronto. As might be expected, a quixotic eccentricity is the order of the day and night.

Mr. McKellar plays Patrick, a solitary mourner for his dead wife, who wants to confront the end alone. Sandra Oh plays Sandra, who tries unsuccessfully to reach her husband, Duncan (David Cronenberg), so that they can exercise their freedom of choice in a mutual suicide. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) tries to satisfy all his unfulfilled sexual fantasies in the six hours remaining to the end of existence.

And so on and so forth. Sarah Polley is wasted in a tiny part, and Geneviève Bujold spends half her allotted time in a carnal encounter and the other half in a concert hall. The rest is typically Canadian self-diminution. But what a gimmick for an art film!

Chaplin, Keaton Together

Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton in their prime on a double bill from Friday, Nov. 26 to Friday, Dec. 3! What a marvelous idea for Symphony Space on Broadway and 95th Street on the eve of the new millennium. After all, Chaplin and Keaton are arguably the two most creative and most deeply funny film comedians of this dying century. As the French would say, “They are both axioms of the cinema, and, as such, their art is immortal and imperishable.”

Limelight (1952) will be shown at 7 P.M. on Saturday, Nov. 27, along with Edward Sedgwick’s The Cameraman (1928) starring Keaton. Claire Bloom, Chaplin’s co-star in Limelight , will introduce the film. The series opens with Keaton’s The General (1927) and Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), two of their most revelatory classics, on Friday, Nov. 26. From then on, it’s don’t-miss week at Symphony Space.

She’s No Fanny Price, But Who Is?