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TELEVISION REVIEW

Still making persuasive sense

PBS' Austen marathon may be too much of a good thing, but don't hold that against 'Mansfield Park.'

January 25, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

It's hard not to wonder, three weeks in, if PBS' decision to air "The Complete Jane Austen" in single-episode weekly installments does a disservice to its subject. As early scenes of "Mansfield Park" unfold there is no denying that the bloom has faded a bit from the rose. The manor houses, the decolletage, the inevitable brass candlesticks do not provide quite the cozy respite they once did. The characters too seem a bit worn about the edges: Here is the spirited but disenfranchised heroine, the noble man she loves but seemingly cannot have, the scheming female friend, the charming rake, all vying for income and position with marriage based in love being the ultimate and elusive prize.

So one can be forgiven a little armchair psychoanalysis -- is a country walk in Austen ever just a country walk? And why are all the rakes and rogues instantly identifiable by the wildness of their hair?

But it would be a shame to take what may be a flaw in the concept out on its parts. As itself, "Mansfield Park" is as charming an adaptation of the novel as one would wish, and if American television viewers can find value in weekly weigh-ins of the morbidly obese or soap operas thinly disguised by surgical scrubs, they can certainly look past the repetition of skirt-trailing picnics and thundering carriages bringing dire messages in the middle of the night.

At age 10, Fanny Price (Billie Piper, formerly of "Doctor Who") is sent by her poverty-stricken mother to live with her rich relations, Lord and Lady Bertram. Growing up shy but loyal among her more capricious cousins, Fanny has but one true friend -- her cousin Edmund (Blake Ritson). Not surprisingly, she falls in love with him; also not surprisingly, there is an obstacle, in the slender, scheming form of Mary Crawford (Hayley Atwell). Mary and her brother Henry (Joseph Beattie) are a fine pair of Austenian villains, insinuating themselves into the hearts of Mansfield Park in hopes of marrying up. Aided by Tom, the slightly debauched but still lovable older Bertram heir (James D'Arcy), the Crawfords are soon fixtures at Mansfield Park, making poor Fanny feel every inch of her poor relation status.

Edmund becomes smitten with the vixenish Mary, despite Atwell's choice to play her with a bit more waspishness than absolutely necessary; lines that might have been softened with flirtation by another actress come off almost antagonistic. But some men, I am told, like that sort of thing. Henry is, of course, the heartless libertine of this particular play (just look at his hair), following in the more notorious footsteps of Messrs. Wickham ("Pride and Prejudice") and Willoughby ("Sense and Sensibility"), while Edmund's sister Maria (a pre-"Bionic" Michelle Ryan) proves once again the dangers of sexual, as opposed to romantic, attraction. As far as Austen is concerned, one simply cannot be warned about this often enough.

The revolutionary aspects of Austen's writing are too numerous to count, at least without footnotes and proper citations, which make term papers such a bore, but really, it is impossible to read, or watch, her work without repeatedly thanking her for the intelligence of her main characters. In answer to the hapless heroines of her time, Austen created women blessed with resolve, a little grit and a very good vocabulary.

Even those duplicitous friends and vixens have about them an air of street smarts. "You seem to think if you shake me hard enough something serious will drop out," Mary tells Edmund. "But I assure you I am profoundly shallow."

You can't be more fair than that, and yet Edmund convinces himself for a time that he must have her. So surely he deserves the little heartbreak he gets.

Austen's women and men are flawed, and some of them, particularly the ancillary characters, are at times more caricature than character. But no one would ever accuse them of being unintelligent. Even the most flighty among them, the Mrs. Bennetts and Mrs. Jenningses are allowed moments of shrewdness, and even revelation. For most of "Mansfield Park," Lady Bertram (Jemma Redgrave) snoozes and dandles her everlasting pug. While Redgrave is clearly having a high old time playing ditzy aristocracy, it is reassuring when Lady Bertram rouses herself in the climactic scene to deliver one of those great Austen closers. Gazing at Edmund and Fanny walking, newly in love, she smiles in satisfaction. "Now perhaps Edmund will at last think to ask Fanny to marry him. . . . My dear," she says in answer to her husband's startled mutterings, "Fanny has been in love with Edmund since she was a child."

In the end, it would seem, not even a snooze is really a snooze. At least not in Austen.

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mary.mcnamara @latimes.com

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'Mansfield Park'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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