“Mansfield Park:” Black Suffering And White Romance

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.

mansfield park 1999 hugh bonneville











PeaceBang Reviews “In The Heart Of The Sea: The Musical!”



(What is that thing, Jay?)

Okay, it wasn’t a musical. It was a film by Ron Howard, starring Chris Hemsworth as the steely-eyed first mate of the whaling ship Essex that left Nantucket harbor in 1819 and got STOVE BY A WHALE, which is the greatest 19th century phrase I can think of.

I like to use it whenever my car won’t start or I’m late for any reason: I WAS STOVE BY A WHALE, I say. “Where’s your boyfriend?” “Oh, he couldn’t come, he was stove by a whale.” 

I have lived in eastern Massachusetts for seventeen years now, so while I’m a mere newcomer to these parts by New England standards, I’m a huge fan of New England history. Nathaniel Philbrick’s riveting book In The Heart of The Sea: The True Story of The Whaleship Essex was the first one I bought when I moved back to area in 2002, and I sat among my half-unpacked boxes in front of a fan chewing my nails and shivering with terror and suspense as I devoured Philbrick’s tale of the terrible fate of the Essex and its crew. It’s a fantastic book. You should probably just go read the book right now.

Better yet (or certainly just as good), read Moby Dick, Melville’s epic American novel based on the true story of the Essex!

I can’t recommend seeing the movie, though.

It’s just not dramatically good. The biggest problem is that Chris Hemsworth is the most boring actor imaginable. All he does with this role is stand around looking hunky and determined, and when he gets angry, worried, upset, he squints. He gets wet, he stomps around and climbs rigging and yells all the important lines like “Thar she blows!” and “Land! LAND!” and “I guess we should eat that guy because we’re all starving to death in these little rowboats because our ship was STOVE BY A WHALE” and all, but he’s very, very boring. Boring and squinty.

Cillian Murphy would have been way better. He plays a member of the crew and Chris Hemsworth’s best childhood friend. They have a very touching scene where you can see the desperate sadness in Murphy’s eyes as he considers not only the dramatic content of the scene, but how much better the whole movie would have been if he had been cast in Hemsworth’s role. I agreed with him. It brought a true tear to my own eye.

The CGI effects are so bad! How did that happen, Opie? There’s a very pretty animated backdrop of Nantucket that they use at the beginning of the film that looks like it was painted by Thomas Kincaid, Painter of Light.

The whales are visually awesome, of course, but even they swim around and breach and slam their flukes with no real sense of dramatic intensity. You can feel them thinking, “What’s my MOTIVATION in this scene?”

Brendan Gleeson is corny as the old sailor who was once that young man who survived the shipwreck after the Essex was STOVE BY A WHALE. He has a wife who loves him even though he “committed abominations” by which he means that he ate some guys while adrift on the sea for ninety days being baked alive under the hot sun. It’s very hard to watch Brendan Gleeson spin his “whale of a tale” to a guy playing Herman Melville, because the dialogue is anachronistic and the actor playing Melville, Ben Whishaw, looks like he knows his scenes are pure rubbish. To me he looked a little sore that he hadn’t gotten cast as Kylo Ren, but I could be projecting.

There are precisely two women in this movie. The other one is Chris Hemsworth’s wife, played by Charlotte Riley, who cries when he leaves and Waits Faithfully For Him To Come Home. I wasn’t sure if she was crying because she had a foreboding of the tragedy that awaited his voyage or because of his super, super bad Massachusetts dialect.

I am not exactly sure of this but it feels possible to me that some of Chris Hemsworth’s dialogue was dubbed by Mark Wahlberg using his voice for the character Ted, the foul-mouthed teddy bear.

I also felt that this film really suffered the absence of one my favorite actors, Bruce Davison, who excels at playing stern 19th century men of authority. He would have KILLED as the owner of the Essex.

You do know what I’m hoping for, though, don’t you? It would make my life complete if someone would make a mash-up of video footage from In The Heart of the Whale with this.

It’s a tuner, bro!







“St. Vincent” Is Quietly Revolutionary For Hollywood: A PeaceBang Review

[Warning: there will be mild spoilers in this essay, so don’t read it if you want to see the movie. – PB]

The movie “St. Vincent” is lifted out of cute cliché territory by the great Bill Murray in the title role as Vincent McKenna, a cranky Vietnam vet with a heart of gold. Supporting Murray are three terrific co-stars: Melissa McCarthy as a struggling single mom, young Jaeden Lieberher as the kid Vin babysits, and Naomi Watts as Daka, the pregnant, Russian “lady of the night” who keeps company and does business with Vinnie.

The movie is mildly remarkable for two reasons that so far have been uncommented on by the mainstream media, which is where I like to step in!

Melissa McCarthy is the first fat leading lady of a movie I can remember whose weight is never mentioned, and whose body size is not the impetus for any physical comedy, sight gags or plot conflict. This is a huge breakthrough for Hollywood, whose aversion to overweight performers is obvious to anyone who watches television or movies on a regular basis. Fat women, particularly, are almost non-existent in Hollywood’s universe except as comic sidekicks or expendable bit players. Melissa McCarthy’s character in “St. Vincent” never mentions her own size or weight, is never shown comically stuffing her face (a typical Hollywood trope), and is never bullied or harassed for her weight. She looks beautiful, she wears nice clothes, and she is treated as a human being worthy of dignity and respect. High five me, writer-director Theodore Melfi and casting person! Can we see more of this, please?

Also quietly notable is Naomi Watts’ depiction of a sex worker, a character names Daka who slyly evades the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché by twice insisting on being paid her full fee by her strapped broke client (Bill Murray). In one of the first scenes in the movie, we hear her berate Vin in no uncertain terms, telling him in a heavy Russian accent that she’s not a charity.

As the movie progresses, Daka becomes drawn more intimately into Vin’s life, but contrary to what at least a dozen movie reviewers I have read have written, she is not Vin’s girlfriend. He is a client of hers, and a friend. There is a difference. Daka is pregnant and vulnerable, and Vin is broke, in poor health, and also vulnerable. The two characters join forces in the end in a way that will be familiar to many financially vulnerable, working-class American — working out a shared housing and food in exchange for household help and emotional support. Daka is not in love with Vin, nor he with her. They share not romantic feelings but mutual affection and compatible needs. I am not surprised that mainstream American movie reviewers missed the multiple references to Daka’s expectation that she will be paid for her sexual or domestic services rendered, but I am disappointed. Daka is an independent working woman; one of the rare Hollywood depictions of a sex worker that manages to be funny and fair, that doesn’t romanticize her life (“Pretty Woman,” I’m looking at you) or end with a chalk outline of her body surrounded by detectives.

I hope we will continue to see more such realistic depictions of the complicated relationships and alliances forged by human beings in community. Storytelling is so much more interesting when it breaks from outworn conventions.