Patricia Rozema’s deconstruction of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park doesn’t tear the old pile down to the ground, but it certainly upsets the household in a most un-Austen-like way. The film is sure to ruffle purists, and some of its gambits don’t work even on the writer-director’s own terms. Still, it’s a lot more provocative than such sunny recent adaptations as Emma and Sense and Sensibility, and at least some of the provocations are rooted in Austen’s own sensibility.
The first of the novelist’s “mature” novels, Mansfield Park is generally labeled her most “problematic.” That’s in large part because heroine Fanny Price lacks the zest of the young women at the centers of the other Austen works. The oldest daughter of an impoverished family, she’s sent at age 10 to grand Mansfield Park, the home of her two aunts, the meddling Mrs. Norris and the slothful Lady Bertram. The latter is the wife of the estate’s imperious owner and the mother of four children, who are informed that their unfortunate cousin will never be their equal. Three of them unquestioningly accept this verdict, but Edmund comes to appreciate Fanny’s wit, imagination, and skill as a writer.
This is Rozema’s most significant interpolation: Her script gives Fanny the authorial voice of Austen herself, even having Fanny write some of the novelist’s own juvenilia. The improved Fanny is a more charming person than the original and thus more capable of holding the center of a movie (as well as a better fit for Australian actress Frances O’Connor, who was tremendously engaging in two forgettable flicks from Down Under, Love and Other Catastrophes and Kiss or Kill). Fanny-as-Jane is also a stronger foil for Sir Thomas Bertram (playwright Harold Pinter) and thus capable of challenging him on the subject that the director has made the film’s subtext: slavery.
Austen’s novel does mention Sir Bertram’s West Indies plantation, where the laborers are slaves. Rozema follows the lead of contemporary scholars who believe that Austen was a principled (if discreet) opponent of slavery and that she named her book after Lord Mansfield, the judge who issued the first order limiting slavery within Britain. In this reading, Mansfield Park is England itself, a place dependent on slavery for its survival. This reading also highlights Fanny’s role as a domestic servant who’s little better than a slave—except that in Rozema’s telling Fanny becomes a crusading saint who’s skilled on horseback and the dance floor, and is going to grow up to be one of the world’s most-loved novelists, to boot.
Politically, the film’s undercurrents make Mansfield Park the most interesting of Austen adaptations. Dramatically, however, they sometimes lead to anachronistic overstatement, as when the horrors of slavery are luridly revealed in the drawings of elder Bertram son Tom, who has been driven to despair by what he saw on the family plantation. Rozema doesn’t seem concerned by how such issues might have actually played in the decorous upscale households of early-18th-century England. She’s subtle about making Lady Bertram a laudanum addict, and in noting that the wealthy Lady Bertram and the impoverished Mrs. Price’s different fates are both entirely a matter of circumstance. (The director equates the two women by giving both parts to the same actress, Lindsay Duncan.) All sense of period vanishes, however, when Rozema turns to the subjects of adultery and the attraction for Fanny felt by frequent visitor Mary Crawford (Embeth Davidtz). Their flirtation has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, but the awakening of lesbian desire is a recurrent theme that Rozema couldn’t bring herself to put aside for this film.
Despite their occasional caresses, Fanny and Mary both have designs on the same man, sensitive Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller). This is Mansfield Park’s variation on the typical Austen plot: Edmund has a true rapport with Fanny, but thinks he loves Mary. Meanwhile, Sir Bertram decrees that Fanny should marry Mary’s caddish brother, Henry (Alessandro Nivola), whose interest in Fanny is inexplicable. These complications are more easily worked out than slavery and drug addiction, which must ultimately disappear with the happy ending.
A happy ending is what Rozema obligingly provides, albeit one scored to African music and featuring an inside joke that Austen would not have understood. Like the rest of the film, the final moments are an exuberant muddle that will test the patience of even Rozema’s longtime fans (of which I am one). Given the choice between another Emma and this overreaching ideological frolic, though, Mansfield Park is clearly the one to equivocally savor.
Hollywood revels in its own glamorous past, but celebrating the good old days can evoke awkward memories in people for whom those times weren’t so great. Director and co-writer Adam Abraham’s Man of the Century, a playfully affectionate tribute to the Jazz Age, solves that problem by allowing its players to live in whichever era they find more comfortable. Title character Johnny Twennies (played with suitable jauntiness by co-writer Gibson Frazier) spends his days in the ’20s, writing a column for the New York Sun-Telegram and romancing Samantha Winter (Susan Egan), whom he imagines to be a flapper. But Samantha is actually a ’90s woman who works at a Soho art gallery with her friend Richard (Dwight Ewell). That Samantha is not a virgin and Richard is both black and gay might shock a genuine ’20s gent, but these things simply don’t register with Johnny. He’s not accepting, just oblivious—which finesses any possible political objections to Abraham and Frazier’s time-bending scenario.
Like last year’s The Impostors, Man of the Century begins as a silent movie. After waking up in a soundless apartment, Johnny hits the chattering streets of a New York where telegrams are still delivered, speakeasies still operate—and the New York Sun-Telegram is still published. (It’s a black-and-white city, of course, although one where natural-light cinematography betrays a ’90s visual sensibility.) The newspaper has just been sold, and its new owner wants to modernize. Johnny’s job is on the line, so he promises to a crack a big story about a local mob boss. Meanwhile, he has to show a new photographer the ropes, land an audition for a nice kid who wants to be an opera singer, dodge his mother’s plan to marry him to a spoiled heiress, and make up with Samantha, who’s insulted rather than flattered by his gentlemanly refusal to go to bed with her.
The point of this mild-mannered but consistently clever entertainment is to give Johnny the maximum number of opportunities to use such quaint expressions as “moxie,” “flatfoot,” “banana oil,” and “fidget the digit”—and also to fill the soundtrack with songs by the Gershwins and their contemporaries. The inspirations include Marx Bros. farces, opium-den adventure tales, and Prohibition-era gangster flicks, but fundamentally the film is a musical, complete with a decorous jam session and a cameo by Bobby Short. My first hunch was that Abraham and Frazier intended a gentle sendup of the lounge revival—an impression that was reinforced when Samantha, hoping to seduce Johnny, put on an Astrud Gilberto samba. Both lounge-core loyalists and hard-core modernists could conceivably be offended, but the movie is too amiable to provoke either camp. Rather than play the ’20s against the ’90s to satirize one or the other, Man of the Century maintains that both are just swell.
Although it labors frantically to pretend otherwise, The World Is Not Enough also straddles a time warp. The 19th official James Bond escapade emphatically begins in the present, displaying sexy new tourist destinations as if it were the latest issue of Conde Nast Traveler: It opens in Bilbao, with the Guggenheim Museum in the background, and then moves to London, with the Millennium Dome as stage dressing when 007 (Pierce Brosnan) races a high-tech speedboat on the canals of the Docklands redevelopment area. After that, though, the scenery becomes familiar: alpine slopes, ex-Soviet republics, submarine interiors, bombs bursting like pyrotechnic flower arrangements. New cast members who promise wit (John Cleese) and hipness (“King of Jungle” Goldie) are among the many additions that are not indeed enough.
The plot is even more tattered than the decor. Bond must stop a suicidal rogue ex-KGB agent with a bullet in his brain (Robert Carlyle) from destroying a major city while protecting the pipeline being built by Elektra King (Sophie Marceau, Bond Sex Toy No. 1). A former kidnap victim, King is the seductive but enigmatic daughter of a college chum of Bond’s boss, M (Judi Dench), who makes a rare foray into the field. As usual, halfway through the film our hero switches erotic allegiances to another woman; this time it’s Valley-girl nuclear physicist Christmas Jones (Denise Richards, Bond Sex Toy No. 2), who wins the ultimate wet-T-shirt contest when she and 007 swim to safety from a sub stranded on the bottom of the Bosporous.
Director Michael Apted agilely handles the many action sequences, but the end of the Cold War leaves scripters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Bruce Feirstein with the customary plot problems. Still, the Bond franchise’s real dilemma is the sexual revolution that eclipsed 007’s suave promiscuity decades ago. The World Is Not Enough and its superior predecessor, Tomorrow Never Dies, demonstrate that it’s possible to make Bond’s adventures a tad more realistic: This time, the not-quite-invulnerable superspy is nursing a dislocated shoulder from the pre-credits action sequence, actually gets wet during that speedboat chase, and singes his clothes while outrunning an explosion. (This makes Bond’s racing-a-fireball scene the most tenable of the many recent examples, although it is of course still utter nonsense.) There’s no way, however, to turn up the sizzle on Bond’s PG-13 amours. Aside from Richards’ acting, the movie’s most risible moment comes when Elektra tries to melt a prospective lover by tantalizingly sliding an ice cube down her face and her neck…and onto her fully clothed chest. Doddering ex-Bond Sean Connery had hotter PG-13 sex in Entrapment.CP