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Faithful to the book, but weak TV work
on 27 June 2009
If you have read and love the book and want a faithful dramatized version, this is the DVD for you, and I recommend it whole-heartedly. Austen's story, characters and conversations are wonderfully preserved. Everyone knows how to ride a horse, and Mary even knows how to play the harp.
It is, however, mediocre television in which the techniques of the craft are often obvious and sometimes sloppy. When one can enjoy the people, get lost in the story and be swept away by the images without knowing why, that is when craftsmanship becomes artistry, and this production only rarely rises to that standard.
Problem 1: Unsophisticated camera work
My husband walked out after half an episode complaining that the director was obviously trained for the stage and knew nothing of film. He also complained that the careless use of the hand-held camera made him queasy. I realized about 3 episodes in that the use of the hand-held camera was done to underscore Fanny's unrest, but it was still roughly done, and one is not supposed to "see" that as a film watcher. Also I wished that more close-ups were done of Fanny in the earlier episodes, as she is the central character and had very little to say. The director later showed flashes of inspiration in his poignant use of profile, but, again, one is not supposed to "see" it.
Problem 2: Acting befitting a low-budget stage production.
I don't mean that the actors are bad; in fact the actors are all good and all have at least one moment of brilliance (and some actors, such as Edward, have several). However, with the exceptions Lord and Lady Bertram (Bernard Hepton as Lord Bertram head and shoulders above the rest, and a true artist, as artistry is defined above) every one of the actors shows their technique and schooling at some point. Some do better than others, but they all have moments when they exagerate their gestures and declaim the text so that it is clearly understood in the "back row". Naturalness of cadence is secondary. Mrs. Norris, as a clownish character, has "permission" to be campy, and she even stoops when addressing Lord Bertram. But the visibility of technique in the subtle characters of Fanny and Mary is distracting. It was a bit jarring the first time Fanny addressed the corner of the room before snapping her eyes back to the person to whom she was talking. After the sixth time, I realized that that is how she "portrayed" modesty. Again, one is not supposed to "see" that.
Problem 3: Unless you already know the story and are looking forward to how such-and-such a scene was handled, the TV series is not well paced to grip and hold the viewer's attention.
If you happen to have a DVD collection similar to mine, allow me to make the following comparisons:
Vis à vis problem 1: The Maigret series (starring Michael Gambon) is a shining example of excellent camera work on a shoe-string budget.
Vis à vis problem 2: Whatever you might think of the character interpretations (or the speed of Knightly's speech), the naturalness of Austen's characters in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice is generally breath taking.
Vis à vis problem 3: The 2006 Bleak House also stays true to the novel, but at the same time is so well paced it compels the viewer to keep watching episode after episode after episode. The acting in Bleak House is also extraordinary, but I wanted to compare Austen with Austen for problem 2.
I am glad I bought this Mansfield Park, as it is so true to Austen's excellent novel, but I wish it looked more like the work of an artist and less like the work of a promising student. Three stars sums it up.