Films

Austen Powers

Patricia Rozema moves into Mansfield as if to the manor born

Brian D. Johnson November 22 1999
Films

Austen Powers

Patricia Rozema moves into Mansfield as if to the manor born

Brian D. Johnson November 22 1999

Austen Powers

Patricia Rozema moves into Mansfield as if to the manor born

Films

Brian D. Johnson

Jane Austen is back, and she has a new

spring in her step. After adaptations of Emma, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, it seemed there was nothing left to be mined by Hollywood. But Harvey Weinstein, the tenacious co-chairman of Miramax Films, thought there might be a way of extracting cinematic gold from the stubborn ground of Mansfield Park (1814), Austen's third and least popular novel. So he turned to Canadian director Patricia Rozema. On face value, she was not the most likely candidate to translate Austens genteel sensibility into a period confection. She has thrived on the margins, with a career that has glided from the art-house whimsy of I’ve Heard

the Mermaids Singing (1987) to the lesbian romance of When Night Is Falling (1995). But Rozema, the first woman to direct an Austen movie, was more than up to the challenge.

Her Mansfield Park is an exhilarating triumph. Witty, energetic and bravely modern, it breathes new life into Austen while preserving her slyly irreverent spirit. Purists may be shocked by some of the liberties Rozema has taken with her script. Mansfield Park is the

most sexualized of all Austen adaptations, with a frisson of lesbian desire, and a fleeting sex scene that the director had to trim for the American version to win a PG-13 rating. Rozema has also fortified Fanny Price, Austens timid heroine, with a streak of feminism. Making her a writer, she has grafted aspects of Austens own life onto the character.

Although Mansfield Park has no major stars, its eclectic cast—which ranges from glowering playwright Harold Pinter to Trainspottings mercurial Jonny Lee Miller—is uniformly superb. And Rozema, whose films all possess a cleareyed lyricism, adapts to the sweep of period filmmaking as if to the manor born. At 41, she has made what will likely be the most successful movie by a Canadian director of her generation. After it scored highly in early test screenings, Weinstein told her: “Patricia, I guarantee you a hit.” Miramax already has an Oscar campaign in gear, with the hope of getting a nomination for best adapted screenplay at the very least. The company had her give a speech to screenwriters recendy in Los Angeles, and last week she addressed the Directors Guild of America.

On the American publicity circuit, meanwhile, Rozema has been trailing Toronto friends Atom Egoyan and Don McKellar— they are promoting the current U.S. releases of Felicia’s Journey and Last Night, respectively. “Fm so proud to be on that team,” she enthused during an interview over lunch last week. “I feel like were a little posse. I get lots of questions like, ‘What’s going on up there? What do they put in the water?’ And I say, ‘They put money into arts funding. We’re all a product of what critics would call protectionist behaviour. We’ve been allowed to develop our tastes and make our mistakes.’ ”

Now that Rozema is coming out into the world of unprotected moviemaking, she seems determined to do it on her own terms. Like Austen’s Fanny Price, this is a woman not easily swayed by men of property. The director remembers the first time she was courted by Weinstein. It was 1987. He had a fledgling company

called Miramax Films. She was a neophyte director whose first feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, had just been invited to the Cannes film festival. She had barely got the news when Weinstein called her out of the blue to demand an advance screening. She said he would have to wait. But he persisted, phoning her almost every day, while she resisted his entreaties.

In Cannes, she found Weinstein waiting for her on the steps of the theatre. And after Mermaids premièred to a 10minute standing ovation, he found himself competing with a horde of other suitors who wanted the film. “Everywhere I went,” recalls Rozema, “there was another bottle of Dorn Perignon. He just hustled us. Hed say, ‘I’ll make you an offer, but you have to respond without leaving this room.’ In our innocence we’d say, ‘Oh, is that how it’s done?’ ”

Eventually, Weinstein won the rights to Mermaids, outbidding his rivals with a $500,000 offer. “I always got a big kick out of him because he really did seem to have a sense of how huge the possibilities really are,” says Rozema. Mermaids, which cost just $350,000, went on to gross $6 million, making Rozema the toast of Canadian cinema. Weinstein, now 47, went

on to become the world’s most powerful “independent” producer as Miramax (now part of the Disney empire) scored such Oscar triumphs as The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love.

Two years ago, when Weinstein approached her to direct Mansfield Park, Rozema again played hard to get. The script “was too boring,” she says. “I really couldn’t force myself through it.” But after some coaxing, she finally read the Austen novel, then agreed to write and direct her own, more adventurous adaptation, drawing on Austen’s letters and teenage fiction to enrich her screenplay. Fanny Price is one of Austen’s least inspiring heroines. British writer Kingsley Amis called her “a monster of complacency and pride.” By working Austen into the mix, “I added a layer to her,” says Rozema. “But I don’t change her behaviour particularly. She’s not suddenly this super-heroine. She’s still really quite passive.”

Fanny is a cautious Cinderella, one who can’t decide between glass slippers and sensible shoes. Portrayed with disarming subtlety by Australian actress Frances O’Connor, she is a poor girl from Portsmouth who is shipped off to wealthy relatives at Mansfield Park and accorded a status somewhere between servant and daughter. She finds herself in a dysfunctional dynasty ruled by an overbearing patriarch, Sir Thomas Bertram (Pinter), who derives his fortune from the slave trade. His wife lives in a haze of laudanum and liquor. His two daughters, Maria and Julia, are desperate to be married off. Fanny, meanwhile, burns with a repressed love for her cousin, Edmund (Miller), an aspiring clergyman.

Austen’s letters and her wildly satirical teenage fiction enrich Rozema’s screenplay

Complicating matters is the arrival of a racy brother-sister duo, Mary and Henry Crawford (Embeth Davidtz and Alessandro Nivola). While Edmund becomes enamoured of Mary, Fanny fends off Henry’s relendess courtship, and her resistance to this eligible suitor infuriates Sir Thomas. “He is not with-

out charm,” Fanny tries to explain, “but like many charming people he conceals an almost absolute dependence on the appreciation of others.”

That elegant line comes from Rozema, not Austen, and it shows how gracefully she has adopted the author’s voice. The director also sifted through Austen’s letters, “underlining everything that felt fabulous to me,” she says, and borrowing lines such as “I see more distinctly through the rain.” Another source was Austen’s surreal teenage writings, her juvenilia. “They’re wildly satirical,” says Rozema. “She just took the piss out of sweet little girly romances with stories of cannibalism and amnesia.”

In the movie, Fanny reads stories and letters directly to the camera as she cor-

responds with her younger sister back in Portsmouth. Drawing on Austen’s writings, it is an ingenious conceit, a way of spicing up Fanny’s character with Austen’s spunky persona. Mansfield Park is often considered Austen’s most autobiographical novel. Like Fanny, she accepted a marriage proposal and changed her mind the next morning. And there is a clear link between Fanny’s quiet perseverance and Austen’s struggle to survive while anonymously writing novels: the closeted female intelligence.

Rozema also magnified the book’s reference to Sir Thomas’s role as a slave trader in the West Indies. “These things were related—the treatment of Fanny Price and the treatment of the slaves,” says the director. “Austen is pointing to the big bass note of the economics of the whole empire. And that was exciting. I thought I could bring something new to the Jane Austen library by pointing to that.”

In her research, Rozema discovered that the book’s tide likely refers to the historic Mansfield judgment, which protected slaves who had escaped to England. Austen “is far too deliberate a writer to pick a name out of the blue,” says the filmmaker. “She knew the niece of Lord Mansfield, her father was a trustee for a plantation in Antigua, and she wrote that she had fallen in love with the writings of Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist. So it seemed to me she had quite a political agenda.”

In the film, a shot of Fanny riffling through sketches depicting plantation atrocities of rape and torture was one of the scenes that the Motion Picture Association of America wanted cut to preserve a PG-13 rating. “Over my dead body,” said Rozema, who appeased the MPAA on another front —by replacing a shot of two adulterers naked in bed with a less revealing closeup. In Canada and the rest of the world, the movie will be shown intact.

Rozema, who expects to be taken to

task for messing with Jane Austen, defends her interpretation. “I’m attracted to her anti-sentimentality—she just couldn’t take romance seriously—but I’m suckier than her. I’m still touched by love well expressed.” As for the suggestion of lesbian lust between Fanny and Mary, the director says she only drew out an innuendo that is in the book. The lesbian subtext polarized preview audiences, however. “I had to fight for it a bit,” says Rozema. “That’s why previews can be dangerous in the wrong hands, because they can basically take out anything that’s unique or idiosyncratic.”

But Rozema seems to be getting her own way, holding her own with heavyweights like Harvey Weinstein and Harold Pinter. “They’re the kind of powerful guys that I get a big kick out of and get along with really well,” she says, “because I don’t take them remotely seriously. That’s the Harvey principle—I take the piss out of him, and it’s fine.”

Rozema knows authority. A daughter of Dutch immigrants, she was born in Kingston, Ont., and grew up in Sarnia within a strict Calvinist enclave. Austen, she says, “was someone who valued backbone and that’s something I’m drawn to. There’s a tradition in the Dutch Calvinist heritage, a place for the noble woman, the really powerful female figure who’s intelligent, who speaks and is heard.”

Embracing a freedom undreamed of in Austen’s world, Rozema challenged her Calvinist faith in college and recognized her attraction to women. Now she has a young daughter, but declines to discuss her private life on the record. As an irreverent artist on the verge of mainstream success, she has understandable concerns about being labelled for her sexual preference. In her Mansfield Park, during a rehearsal of an amateur play, there is a lovely bit of double entendre arising from the confusion of whether Fanny has “come out” into society. “Forget this out/not out’ nonsense,” one character chimes in. “I say we stage the play!” And that, Rozema says with a laugh, “has become my motto for living.” EZ3