Content warning: Discussion of the enslavement of human beings and their rape, torture, and murder at the hands of white enslavers. Yes, we are actually talking about a Jane Austen film adaptation.
Sometimes re-watching a film after a couple of decades have passed reveals a gem that you didn’t appreciate at the time. Sometimes, though, it brings into sharper focus the discomfort you felt when you first watched it, as you lacked the words to describe why you were uncomfortable, only the uneasy feeling that something about it felt “off.” That’s what happened when I watched Mansfield Park (1999) for the first time in 20 years. I remembered the movie always had me feeling on edge, but as a young woman, I could never articulate why. Now that I’ve lived some life and read a lot of Feminist critical theory in the intervening years, the vague uneasiness gave way to an immediate understanding that this film was so ham-fisted in its attempt to equate slavery with Fanny Price wanting to marry someone she loves that it defied credulity.
Some of you reading this are no doubt wondering “what about the costumes?” It feels trite to then just focus on the costumes, which are decent (particularly Maria’s), when so much of this film’s problems aren’t in the clothes but in the entire subtext of equating Fanny Price’s unhappiness at not being allowed to the same freedoms as her male counterparts are in any way equal to literal slavery.
In case you missed the subtext, the film serves up a scene where Fanny contradicts Sir Thomas regarding human chattel and he slides effortlessly into appraising her physical qualities in the same manner — not too subtle equation between being female and being enslaved, which seems a tad overwrought considering how white women in Regency England were still treated better than slaves. At one point Fanny tells at Edmund, “I will not be sold off like one of your slaves!”
Fanny only has to return to her family to be treated as an equal, even though they live in relative poverty compared to her affluent relations. Those fleeting references to slavery and enslaved people? Yeah, it strains credibility to the point of being insulting. Fanny’s suffering for love is probably a miserable place to be, but focusing on her wistful face as she recalls the singing of slaves in the belly of a ship ricocheting off the cliffs below her…? I wasn’t OK with it 20 years ago, but I didn’t know why.
I’m sure there are also some of you reading this thinking, “It’s not fair to hold an old film to current standards,” but I disagree. This film was heralded as a tidy piece of Feminist cinema in 1999, and its reflection on slavery was considered praiseworthy, it has not weathered time well. While the all-white cast gives a passing thought here and there to the suffering of enslaved peoples in the Americas (but of course, not in England, oh no), it doesn’t exactly dwell on it. Even in the climactic scene where Fanny discovers her elder cousin Tom’s sketch book and is horrified to see his drawings of what he witnessed in Antigua (where his father’s plantations are), it’s at such a distance that the effects are quickly abandoned by the film and we are moved on to happier scenes of white prosperity.
I say it is OK to look back at this with better awareness precisely because I was uncomfortable with it then, but not in the way the movie wanted. It wanted me to agree that like the enslaved people on Sir Thomas’ plantation in Antigua that were subjected to rape, torture, and murder (allegedly by Sir Thomas himself), Fanny Price suffers equally as a privileged, pale-skinned ward of a wealthy uncle who has lived the past 10 years of her life in a level of luxury that even her own mother and siblings can’t dream of. It all seems incredibly tasteless, if not just plain insulting of one’s intelligence.
What did you think of this film? Tell us in the comments!