Directed by Patricia Rozema
1999, Miramax Films
Starring: Frances O’Connor, Jonny Lee Miller, James Purefoy
Note: I expected this movie to be in the same vein as the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice and the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility. However, it wasn’t. In preparing to post the review I wrote right after watching the film, I found that Wikipedia describes the movie as “loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel of the same name…the film differs sharply from the original novel in many respects.” Had I known that going in, perhaps my expectations would have been lower and my review different.
You can read my review and a general synopsis of the book here – or just Google the plot.
I have to say, I noticed some differences between the movie and the novel almost immediately. Fanny frequently addresses the camera by reading her letters to Susan (which aren’t really mentioned in the novel) aloud. Her love of writing letters and fiction is mentioned throughout the movie and I felt this was the first of a few traits attributed to Fanny that were not true to the character Austen created. Fanny is incredibly shy (and rather pitiful, in my opinion) and would probably never consider writing fiction and certainly wouldn’t let Edmund read it, as she does in the movie. In the end, she even has a book published, which feels even more unlike her.
I next noticed that they added more focus on the slavery sub-plot. Sir Thomas apparently makes his money from slaves in Antigua, but this was hardly touched on in the novels. In this movie, it’s mentioned a few times, typically by Fanny, who boldly speaks against it. I suppose they wanted to tailor this to a modern audience, but it wasn’t mentioned enough to be a true sub-plot and instead felt awkward. At one point, Fanny happens to find some sketches that Tom Junior had drawn while in Antigua with his father and they’re horrible – they depict rape, torture, and even what appeared to be Sir Thomas ready to receive oral from a female slave. This scene was odd and disturbing to say the least and did not feel at all true to Austen’s voice. If you’re curious, Sir Thomas finds Fanny looking at the pictures, tells her Tom Junior is mad, slaps the portfolio from her hands and later burns it.
The other big issue I had with the movie was Fanny herself – rather than being meek, overly sensitive, morally righteous and generally pathetic, she is mostly bold and outspoken, like a poor copy of Elizabeth Bennet. She occasionally hides in the corner or allows her aunt Norris to bully her around, but mostly she’s pretty outgoing. I was puzzled by this, as I felt her quiet demeanor and tendency to weep over everything set her apart from the other Austen heroines. For instance, when Sir Thomas mentions he’ll be holding a ball in her honor, she rebels against it not because she doesn’t want to be the center of attention, but because she feels she will be sold like cattle into a prosperous marriage – then later at the ball she is seen enjoying herself highly, not shy in the least.
There were a few more minor issues I had, such as Mrs. Thomas being an opium addict and constantly acting drunk or high. Perhaps this was hinted at in the books, but if it was, I missed it. It didn’t feel necessary. There were also a couple scenes between Fanny and Mary Crawford that felt sexual, which threw me off. For instance, when rehearsing the play, Mary treats Fanny as a male actor and is caressing her hips while Edmund watches, and this is apparently what prompts him to join the play.
Fanny also has no real dislike of the Crawfords, though this is something that’s heavily built upon in the novel. When Henry Crawford decides to propose to Fanny in the novel she’s very upset by this and it’s clear throughout that she wasn’t trying to encourage his attentions. In the movie they’re very flirty and friendly and she actually accepts Henry’s proposal for a whole day, before rejecting him the next. Again, it just wasn’t genuine to the character Austen had created. She also has no dislike of Mary, whereas in the novel she instantly feels morally superior and deems both Crawfords as scandalous and indulgent upon meeting them. When their poor behavior is revealed later, Fanny is proved to be justified in her feelings. But in the movie she seems to mostly enjoy their company – until she rejects Henry’s proposal and then later walks in on him having sex with Mrs. Rushford. Yet another shock and strangely sexual scene that doesn’t fit with Austen’s work, or the other movie adaptations I’ve seen.
The movie does stick to the overall outline of events in the novel and I guess it does a decent job of explaining the content considering the medium. It also has a traditional rain scene, as Austen heroines love to be caught in the rain, as well as a kiss between the happy couple at the end, which Austen sadly leaves to her readers’ imaginations.
Overall this movie felt awkward and I sadly didn’t enjoy it, especially considering I was expecting a more traditional and faithful adaptation. To me, the film did not feel authentic to Austen’s voice and vision. I didn’t hate this adaptation, but I’d be hard pressed to name something I actually liked about it. If I had to give it a star rating, it would probably be 2 out of 5.