Three versions of Mansfield Park are available on DVD: a BBC version (1983) directed by David Giles, with Sylvestra le Touzel as Fanny Price, another BBC version (1999) directed by Patricia Rozema, with Frances O’Connor as Fanny, and an ITV version (2007) directed by Ian B MacDonald with Billie Piper as Fanny. If you are someone who cannot accept much of a departure from Jane Austen’s novel, then probably the 1983 version is the only one you will be at all happy with, as the other two versions take very substantial liberties with the story. Neither Frances O’Connor or Billie Piper are anything like the shy, diffident Fanny Price of the novel, while Sylvestra le Touzel’s portrayal is much closer. The drawback of the Giles/Sylvestra le Touzel version is that the acting of most of the actors is nothing like as good as that of the two other version, and in places is wooden. Judged purely as a film, the Patricia Rozema/Frances O’Connor version is a delight, and has a stellar cast, with Harold Pinter as an excellent portrayal of Sir Thomas Bertram, Lindsay Duncan is very convincing as both the impoverished Mrs Price and the affluent Lady Bertram (they are sisters, said to look very alike).
Issues about the slave trade feature much more significantly in the Rozema (1999) version than they do in the novel (the Bertrams wealth is derived from their West Indies plantations, which depend on slavery), and in another interesting variation Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford are discovered in bed together by Fanny Price, something that occurs ‘off-stage’ in the novel, although brought forward in the film to a time when Maria is engaged to her future husband, not after marriage as in the novel.
Billie Piper acts her part like, well, Billie Piper, the gutsy, charming extrovert, and therefore an interesting casting decision for Fanny Price. Her acting should not, however, be criticised. Given the slant on the novel that this version produces, Billie plays her part well and consistently, and is frequently very moving, particularly when she thinks that Edmund Bertram is going to marry Mary Crawford, and when she is banished to the poverty of her parent’s house at Portsmouth by Sir Thomas as a consequence of her rejection of marriage to Henry Crawford.
Mansfield Park is one of the more ‘difficult’ of Jane Austen’s novels, and it is frequently pointed out that one of the main problems is that the charming but selfish Crawfords became too interesting, and this leaves the character development of several of the other people in the novel unsatisfactory.
All three of these versions can be enjoyed, in different ways. The most faithful, though the least satisfactory as a film, is the Giles/Sylvestra le Touzel, while purely as a film the Rozema/Frances O’Connor version is outstanding.