Mansfield Park: screen versions of Jane Austen’s novel

Mansfield Park

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.


Proteus: Haeckel’s aesthetic of art in nature

Darwin and Human Nature: Proteus

The Darwin Correspondence Project’s activities on Darwin and Human Nature provided an opportunity to see a little-known film, Proteus, ably introduced by Nick Hopwood of the History and Philosophy of Science Department at Cambridge (whose introduction can be heard here). This film, produced and directed by David Lebrun, shows the single celled organisms, the Radiolaria, studied by Ernst Haeckel, one of the foremost contemporary supporters of Charles Darwin’s theory of Evolution.  It is clearly a labour of love for Lebrun, who put it together, over twenty years, painstakingly creating by hand the animations that bring the forms and shapes of the Radiolaria to life. It’s quite unlike a natural history documentary that would be produced today, as Hopwood pointed out, which would have included actors playing the part of Haeckel, and others. There are still photographs, which a redolent of the time, and there is the animation, but there is no film of organisms.  It also has a digression about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Poem, the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and the relevance of this to the subject of the film wasn’t at all clear, at least to me, and to several of those who spoke in the discussion afterwards.

What the film does succeed in is showing the aesthetic pleasure that Haeckel enjoyed in the Radiolaria, a pleasure we can share.

The film is available from Amazon.

Darwin and Human Nature: Inherit the Wind

The Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge are presenting a season of films that, in their words, explore the political, social and cultural aspects of Darwinian ideas about human nature, and opened with a showing of Stanley Kramer’s film Inherit the Wind. The film was  ably introduced by Joe Cain, from University College, London, and David Kirby, from the University of Manchester.  This film, made in 1960, explores the 1925 ‘Scopes Monkey’ trial in a small town in the American Bible belt, at which a school teacher was charged with teaching Darwinian Evolution by Natural Selection. The State Legislature had passed a law making it illegal to teach evolution by natural selection, and the film shows the many layers of significance, the conflict between the demands of science that a man thinks and questions, and the demands of faith, which is shown as a powerful force to bind people together in a community.  Some of the characters are portrayed as almost caricatures, such as the local preacher, and the counsel for the prosecution, who, as a  nationally famous lawyer, cannot have been quite as stupid as he was portrayed, and indeed we were assured by the speakers that the counsel at the actual trial was much more subtle.

The film often anticipates the modern formulation of creationism, although it’s never explicit, of course.

Counsel for the defendant is played by Spenser Tracy, a clever portrayal of a not too scrupulous lawyer, and Gene Kelly, best known for his dancing and singing roles, is very good as a cynical newspaper correspondent.

The film was made in 1960, in black and white, and the print we saw was occasionally scratched and grainy, but for all that it’s a surprisingly acceptable film for 2012.  It doesn’t seem ‘old-fashioned’ at all, and that’s because the issues it is concerned with are as relevant today as they were then.  A constant refrain, sung by the local people, is ‘Give me that old-time religion’, and there are threats to run the teacher, and his defending counsel out of town.  Another theme is the conflict between the progressive, liberal north, and the conservative south, and the film ends with the teacher’s counsel, leaving the courtroom alone, to the singing of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord), reminding us of another layer of meaning for this film, the resentment of the American south for their defeat by the north in the American Civil War.

A film well worth seeing.