Lady Bertram wakes up

Last night’s PBS Masterpiece production of ‘Mansfield Park’ was so low energy that I felt it must have been inspired by Lady Bertram, whose chronic somnambulism makes her one of the least observant and most delightful characters in the novel.

On the other hand, most of the characters seem to have wandered away from the novel. Lady Bertram never dozes off. Fanny Price, the heroine, is frisky rather than shy. Aunt Norris is neither Fanny’s nemesis nor the control freak upon which the plot turns. Maria and Julia, who vie for the affection of Henry Crawford, do not display any jealousy or antithesis towards each other. Only the sexy and amoral siblings, Mary and Henry Crawford, are rather true to form.

I enjoyed the performances of both Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram. They at least looked the parts they played. No one, however, is permitted to speak Jane Austen’s superb dialogue or lift a witty phrase or two from her narrative. The author’s words are excised almost completely and replaced with one-liners that supposedly address the problem of converting old-fashioned novel to new-fashioned film.

It is, perhaps, fitting that this adaptation ends with a naughty bridal waltz, an anachronism that Lady Bertram acknowledges with the observation, ‘Edmund and Fanny have learned a new dance.’

Speaking of beginnings and endings, I find the brief intros by Gillian Anderson in an amorphous, floating closeup somewhat disturbing. Although Ms. Anderson made her bones with ‘Bleak House’ and ‘House of Mirth’ and is an attractive and appropriate Masterpiece host, I wish she would land on a set. Also, her researchers are not always accurate. Her statement last night that Mary Crawford is based on Jane Austen, only “more attractive,” is absurd. Jane Austen would not have identified with Mary Crawford’s fatally flawed character.

Although Miss Crawford has some of the novel’s best dialogue, she is the antithesis of her creator. Jane Austen gives many of her wittiest lines to her least admirable characters.

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