Shaking up Jane

 

The plundering of the Jane Austen canon continues apace with the release this week of Mansfield Park, considered by many to be Austen's most difficult work (at least for a modern readership) because the put-upon heroine, Fanny Price, boasts none of the feisty qualities so admired in the author's other novels.

Like Ang Lee, director of the multi-award-winning Sense and Sensibility, Patricia Rozema seems an unlikely choice to direct a quintessentially English classic. No one was more surprised than Rozema herself: she describes her previous work as "urban non-genre" - quirky, small-scale arthouse films where magic and fantasy combine with comedy and a sharp intellect. Her debut feature, I Heard the Mermaids Singing, won the Prix de Jeunesse at Cannes in 1987. In 1997 a TV documentary on Yo Yo Ma playing Bach Cello Suite No 6 was awarded the Golden Rose of Montreux and an EMMY award.

Like all Austen's novels, Mansfield Park is about the necessity of marrying well, something Fanny Price's mother singularly failed to do. And at the age of 13 Fanny leaves her impoverished family home to be brought up by her aunt who, in complete contrast to her mother, married extremely well and now lives in aristocratic splendour in Mansfield Park.

"I guess the idea was that it was such familiar territory that it did need a fresh approach, and it did need a bold gesture," Rozema says. The bold gesture was to take Fanny Price by the scruff of her self-righteous neck and transform her into a youthful version of Austen herself, using early fictional efforts, letters and journals to layer the cake. Patricia Rozema is Canadian - her parents were Dutch immigrants - and she read English literature and philosophy at Calvin College and Seminary, a very strict Dutch Calvinist University, she explains, which put paid to her faith but "reclaimed the work ethic".

"That's what drew me to Mansfield Park in some ways. It didn't bother me in the novels but in the films all I thought was `Why aren't they doing anything? Can't they work?' And then in Mansfield Park is the knowledge. It's the slaves, the blood and the sweat of people ripped from their homes. That's where the money comes from. So that actually was what was attractive to me." In Rozema's hands, slavery becomes a central theme, bringing with it a far tougher emotional hinterland than we have been used to in Austen. She wanted Mansfield Park itself to be "beautiful and magnificent but crumbling and tarnished", like the society it represented.

Although Rozema used Michael Coulter, the cinematographer who shot Sense and Sensibility, she denies he was a safety net. "I was determined it wouldn't be another nostalgic, pretty, so-called costume drama. I wanted something altogether harder-edged, grittier. I wanted to see the texture of the walls." The choice of location helped - a Georgian pile that, although under the stewardship of English Heritage, has been empty for years.

Rozema found the key to the movie when she stumbled on Austen's teenage writings. "They are completely surreal - stories about people kicking each other out of the window, running off to Paris, being thrown into jail for not having enough money. It's wild stuff. And that's what really fired me up. Because they have a whole different spirit, they are completely anti sentimental and she'd been sentimentalised in the worst way. She was working in a genre, but her goals were essentially comedic. And in this case, I think, political."

By which Patricia Rozema means antislavery. As evidence she cites Austen's choice of title - a thinly veiled reference, she believes, to the first anti-slavery legislation brought in by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, whose grand-daughter was a cousin of Jane's and a frequent visitor to the Austen household. Rozema has brought this issue centre stage.

Although serious issues lie at the heart of her adaptation - power, servitude, money - publicity has focused on what the tabloids call the "bodice-ripper" element of the movie. There is certainly far more obvious sensuality than is usually the case in Austen, including what could be taken for a lesbian element in the relationship between Fanny Price and her rival for her cousin Edmund's affections, Mary Crawford, given physical expression in two scenes.

Rozema insists that it's all in the novel. "I pump up the volume a little bit, " she admits, "but there is a certain frisson in the novel. There is a slight crush going on." An acknowledged lesbian herself (her 1995 feature When Night Is Falling is a female reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth) Rozema says she "knew that everyone would assume that was my contribution, but it was there".

"The idea of a homo relationship was so outside of everybody's ability to imagine. But both scenes have a little innuendo, although they're completely heterosexual in nature. I think everyone is so alarmed by what they're looking at, they're not listening to the words. Mary is so sensual. There's a homo-erotic joke, about rears and vices, a sodomy joke, so she's a quite a been-around-the-block kind of girl. People forget that they Victorian-ised Austen. That period, in fact, was a lot more free than we think."

The casting of non-English actors in classic English parts (and vice versa) is now a movie commonplace, yet the new Australian star Frances O'Connor, like her director, believes it gave her a different kind of perspective. "Because you don't grow up with those novels, perhaps you come to it with a lesser sense of reverence," she explains, "perhaps you are less precious with them."

Although O'Connor has since completed Madame Bovary, Mansfield Park was the first film she made outside Australia and her own experience paralleled what was happening on screen - "because Fanny Price is an outsider in a foreign environment and trying to hang on to her own sense of self".

"I found it actually helped so much that the stuff that she was going through, I was going through. In some ways it was like making a documentary because I could so identify with her dilemma."

Like many of the new screen talents, O'Connor is no slouch. Her great-grandparents emigrated to Australia from Co Kerry during the Famine and made a killing in the Kalgourlie gold rush. Her father is a nuclear physicist while her mother is a music teacher. O'Connor, too, read English literature, including Austen, at University in Perth, Western Australia. O'Connor admits she was aware of a huge responsibility "dealing with a text that people have cherished and loved through generations.

But at the end of the day you are making a film to entertain people and to give them something to take away with them and so you have to inject into it warmth and humanity and if you worry about what people are going to think about it you're not going to come up with anything worth watching." Fanny Price's uncle-by-marriage and guardian Sir Thomas Bertram is played by Harold Pinter - which, O'Connor admits, was the most terrifying aspect of filming, though she never admitted to the great man that she was totally in awe of him. "I grew up doing his plays at university. So I tried to be very cool. But my boots were shaking."

Mansfield Park is on general release