A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that there are mature conversations having to do courtship (including same-sex) and marriage in this period romance. Some messages regarding slave life and its myths could be offensive to viewers (for example, "Mulattoes are like mules; they cannot breed with each other"). However, the heroes in this movie assert that slavery of any kind is wrong and should be abolished. Some drinking, and one character is addicted to opium. A couple is caught having sex, showing skin on skin, with bare breasts partially visible. African slaves on a ship bound for Antigua are referred to as "darkies." Mild profanity on occasion such as "bastard." Fanny finds a sketchbook in which slaves are depicted being whipped, flogged, lynched, and raped. The slave women in the notebook are topless.
What's the story?
Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor) is from a large and very poor family. When she's a young girl, she's invited to stay with rich relatives as something between a servant and companion. She is befriended by her cousin Edmund but ignored by his dissolute older brother Tom and his selfish sisters, neglected by their parents, and bullied by her aunt, also a poor relative under their care. She grows up reading everything she can and doing her best to get along with everyone. Henry Crawford and his sister Mary, both wealthy and attractive, come to stay nearby. Omni-seductive, they are both weak-willed and manipulative. They charm everyone but Fanny, creating many crises of honor and reputation.
Is it any good?
This is not your mother's MANSFIELD PARK. Director Patricia Rozema has effectively removed the book's frail and mousy -- if resolutely honorable -- heroine and replaced her with some amalgam of Austen's feistier characters plus a dash of Austen herself. Then she throws in a bit of Jo March, Susan B. Anthony, and even Scarlet O'Hara for good measure. The movie version's heroine is far more cinematic than the Fanny Price of the book, and the adaptation works remarkably well. Less successful is the attempt to import 20th-century sensibility on issues such as slavery (Fanny's wealthy relatives own slaves in the West Indies) and some wild anachronisms (Fanny lies casually on her bed while she talks to her male cousin; neighbor Mary Crawford even more casually smokes a small cigar).
The movie is sumptuously produced. Australian actress Frances O'Connor is terrific as Fanny. To use one of Austen's favorite words, she is "lively," but she also is able to show us Fanny's unshakable honor and dignity. Playwright Harold Pinter is outstanding as Lord Bertram. One of the great moral crises of the book is whether the young people should put on a play (Answer: They should not because it would create too great an intimacy). But Austen never shied away from having characters make ineradicable moral and social mistakes, and most of her books feature at least one couple who runs off together without getting married and suffers some serious consequences. Perhaps in frustration over the difficulty of making those actions seem real to today's audiences, or perhaps simply as a way of making a classic work seem unstuffy, this movie has more implicit and explicit sexuality than we have seen in other movies based on Austen's books (except maybe Clueless).
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about some of the issues raised by the movie, including the family's dependence on slaves in the West Indies to maintain their luxurious lifestyle. What do you know about this time period? How do you imagine you would have felt about slavery had you lived then?
Talk about the limited options available to women that led Fanny's cousin Maria to insist on marrying a foolish -- but wealthy -- man. How have gender roles changed since this time period? What is our modern perspective on Fanny and Maria? How is it different from how many would have viewed them in their own time?
Are period films appealing? What techniques do filmmakers use to transport us back in time? Are some techniques more effective than others?
- In theaters: November 24, 1999
- On DVD or streaming: July 11, 2000
- Cast: Frances O'Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, Sophia Myles
- Director: Patricia Rozema
- Studio: Miramax
- Genre: Romance
- Topics: Book characters
- Run time: 112 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: drug use, sexual references, and brief violence
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