PBS's New Mansfield Park Is Pretty But Dull

There's a term for characters like Fanny Price: Mary Sue. And it's not a particularly nice term. Mary Sues are stand-ins for the author, the author idealized, as Fanny surely must be for Jane Austen in Mansfield Park. Fanny is beautiful, kind, faultless yet modest, noble of heart and spirit but of humble origins that prevent her from being spoiled. She is, in a word, perfect. Fanny may have pleased Austen herself, but she makes for less than compelling drama for the rest of us, at least in the new adaptation of the novel that just aired on Masterpiece Theater.

This is part of the Austen marathon PBS is running this winter, and it's not a total loss -- even the worst film version of Austen has its moments. Billie Piper, Rose from Doctor Who, seems like a bit of stunt casting as Fanny, but she's probably the best thing about this new made-for-TV movie: she's so genuinely ebullient that you forget that you really should want to hate her for being so impossibly perfect. And weirdly enough, she actually seems less anachronistic here, in the early 19th century, than she did as the Victorian-era girl detective in PBS Mystery's Ruby in the Smoke (which is perfectly delightful anyway) -- there's something about her bleached blonde hair and contrasting dark eyebrows that simply screams 20th century, at least, if not actually 21st. But she's a good embodiment of the Fanny that director Iain B. MacDonald seems to want to capture: bright and bubbly and not at all the typical demure Austen heroine.

But the rest of the little society at the Bertram manor known as Mansfield Park is pretty dull. Pretty, but dull. Fanny came here as a child to live with her rich relatives -- including one played by another girl of geek interest: Michelle Ryan, the new Bionic Woman -- and now all manner of typically Austenian matrimonial intrigue threatens to rock the family, and in the process quash her longtime secret in-loved-ness with her cousin Edmund. (Yeah, today we might find it icky to be in love with a cousin, but I guess Austen didn't.) There's a moment when Blake Ritson, as Edmund, finally perks up -- it's that a-ha moment when he suddenly realizes he's been in love with Fanny all along, too -- but that's a long time coming, and not worth the slog to get to it.

(P.S. What's up with PBS now calling Masterpiece Theater just "Masterpiece"? Is this like Kentucky Fried Chicken morphing into mere KFC? Are we all too cool now to say "Masterpiece Theater?")

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MaryAnn Johanson (email me)

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