The movies "Persuasion," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Emma" inevitably took a few cosmetic liberties with Jane Austen. The intent was not to rethink the novels, just to mold them into cinematic shapes. Patricia Rozema's "Mansfield Park" is another story. The Canadian writer-director ("I've Heard The Mermaids Singing") has performed major surgery on Austen's third novel. Both film and book follow Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor), an impoverished girl plucked from her Portsmouth family to be raised by her wealthy relatives, the Bertrams, at Mansfield Park. It's a Cinderella-like fable built atop the solid foundation of Austen's cool, astute social satire.
The movie's Fanny, however, is a far cry from the passive, repressed--and to many, unlikable--heroine on the page. Using Austen's own letters and notebooks as source material, Rozema makes Fanny a more forthright, witty, morally decisive figure. Now a budding writer, she's a composite of Fanny and Austen herself. Dramatically this works: now she's more like the heroine of "Persuasion." We are duly appalled that this splendid girl is treated hardly better than a servant by the silly Bertram sisters, and bossed about by her aunt, the officious Mrs. Norris (Sheila Gish).
Her status at Mansfield Park begins to change with the arrival of the glamorous brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz). While the two Bertram girls fall into a swoon over the eligible and charming Henry, his eye is caught by Fanny--the one woman wise enough to see through his narcissism and frivolity. …