Last night I watched Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which I looked forward to because I knew there would be an irrepressible heroine and lots of sexy 19th century repartee done up as only Jane can do it. Great cast, too.
After the film, starring Frances O’Conner, Jonny Lee Miller and Harold Pinter (!) was over, I tweeted, “I think I just watched a movie about how slavery interferes with white people’s romantic lives?”
Because what the hell was that?
Let me summarize for you: Fanny Price is a poor relation who gets sent to live with rich relations in Mansfield Park. She is in love with her virtuous cousin Edmund (who winds up being a clergyman – score one for positive depictions of clergy in cinema!). She is courted by a super hot but untrustworthy rake named Henry Crawford.
Fanny Price’s uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, makes his fortune largely through dealings in the West Indies. Fanny, though, is concerned about the evils of slavery (as is her cousin Edmund and her dissolute, drunken other cousin Tom, as we shall see). On her way to Mansfield Park in a stagecoach, she passes a harbor and hears the distant ululations of the slaves on a ship. The driver informs her that that’s the sound of “black gold.” The ship and the sounds from it return very briefly in a couple of other scenes. They trouble Fanny, you see. She and Virtuous Edmund make abolitionist murmurings in one or two scenes, but never to directly challenge Sir Thomas, but more to inform him that they’ve been reading.
Reading is a much more important virtue to these characters than speaking out directly against the hand that feeds them — even when they have indisputable truth, as Fanny gains through the discovery of a sketch pad filled with images by an eyewitness, that Sir Thomas is a raping marauder of African women as well as being a direct beneficiary of the slave trade. Meanwhile, she frets prettily in those empire-waist gowns. We’re meant to see her as a woman in a sexist predicament: her futures are dictated by patriarch Sir Thomas who wants her to marry a guy she thinks is of poor character. Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But if Austen can have cousin Maria abandon her husband Sackcloth or Rightcroft or Snailditch (hilariously portrayed by a Hugh Bonneville in a poodle wig, whatever the hell his name is) and flee with a hot lover, she could surely have arranged a similar, parallel flight for Fanny for more righteous cause.
Here’s where I’m like, “Wow, I know that it’s silly to expect 21st century consciousness and intersectionality from Jane Austen, but how about this filmmaker in 1999?” Given that Patricia Rozema added some dialogue and changed some plot points for her film adaptation of Mansfield Park, I wondered why she could not have added even one scene where the characters could actually grapple with the evils of slavery in a way that wasn’t merely a device to enhance the apparently integrity of the two romantic leads. I’m talking two or three lines of dialogue.
As it was, the theft, rape, torture, murder and enslavement of Africans by the English was used as a plot device to move white people through personal issues of integrity and romantic partnerings, which is how black lives are often used in white stories.
At one point, the apparently soul-sick Tom (that’s why he drinks! He’s guilty about supporting slavery) becomes gravely ill and Fanny is rushed back from her squalid home in Portsmouth to help nurse him. We are supposed to infer that Tom, whose ailment is never explained, is basically dying of moral injury. This effects a bedside mea culpa from his father, the evil Sir Thomas, who weeps, “Forgive me.” However, that apology is not for financially benefiting from the slave trade or raping African women who are never seen except as sketches drawn by a white man’s hand and heard by a white woman from a stagecoach, but a father’s distressed cry at the bedside of his dying heir: “Forgive me, and live to inherit my fortune and run my company.”
In other words, the forgiveness is begged not of the real victims of slavery, but of the white man whose conscience was inconveniently troubled by it.
That’s where I think I hooted and threw my remote control across the room.
After Tom (miraculously) recovers and all the romantic partners get squared away (the one character who showed lesbian leanings is exiled, of course, as she turns out to be a thorough baddie), the film ends on a quaint lawn scene as the narrator explains how things resolved. As it turns out, heh heh, Sir Thomas divests from his “interests” in the West Indies but goes into the TOBACCO industry. Isn’t that a great punch line? HA HA HA, a slave-tended crop that kills people! The cheerful music and wink-wink tone of the narrator signals that we are to find this information a mildly naughty irony rather than sickening evidence of the character’s continued exploitation and destruction of countless, anonymous black bodies, families and lives.
We so easily could have had a slightly redeeming coda saying that Franny and her husband Edmund joined an abolitionist cause, but naw. The pretty white heroine got her guy and happy ending. No need to mention slavery, as it was just there to provide a background conflict for white family drama.
Not one of the reviews I could find online mentioned this problem with the film; not even Roger Ebert’s four-star write-up.
Not even Hugh Bonneville’s poodle wig and rouged cheeks could sweeten my bitter disappointment.