Mansfield Park was Jane Austen's third and most controversial novel. Writer and director Patricia Rozema (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing) has taken this 1814 work and spiked it with some of the writer's letters, journal entries, and other writings. "From the beginning, I didn't want to do another Jane Austen garden party," Rozema has stated. "I wanted to show the passion of Jane Austen, her fierce humanity, her devastating wit, and her deep-seated belief in the power of love between two people." These intentions are fulfilled remarkably well on the screen in this totally endearing portrait of a young woman's struggle to remain true to the vastness of her spirit and soul.
Ten-year-old Fanny (Hannah Taylor Gordon) is shipped away by her poverty stricken parents in Portsmouth to live with her mother's sisters in the sprawling country estate of Mansfield Park. Sir Thomas Bertram (Harold Pinter) has expanded his wealth and power with prosperous plantations in Antigua staffed by slaves. His two sons are totally different from each other. Tom (James Purefoy) is a rebellious drunkard, and Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller) is a sensitive boy who immediately establishes a friendship with Fanny. Treated more like a servant than a relative, she is given a hard time by Mrs. Norris (Sheila Gish), an aunt who constantly reminds her of her lowly origins.
As a young woman, Fanny (Frances O'Connor in a strong and robust performance) secretly becomes a prolific writer in letters to her sister Susan (Sophia Myles) and in stories she shares with Edmund. In one epistle she counsels: "Run mad wherever you choose, but do not faint." Fanny must muster strong inner resolve when she comes up against Henry (Alessandro Nivola) and Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz), a charming and opportunistic brother and sister from London. After making a play for Maria Bertram (Victoria Hamilton), Henry, a seductive lothario, sets his sights on Fanny. When Sir Thomas orders her to marry him, she sets out on a course that brings out the best in herself. Mansfield Park is as exhilarating as a brisk ride in the countryside.