Thoroughly Modern Jane

The movies "Persuasion," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Emma" inevitably took a few cosmetic liberties with Jane Austen. The intent was not to rethink the novels, just to mold them into cinematic shapes. Patricia Rozema's "Mansfield Park" is another story. The Canadian writer-director ("I've Heard The Mermaids Singing") has performed major surgery on Austen's third novel. Both film and book follow Fanny Price (Frances O'Connor), an impoverished girl plucked from her Portsmouth family to be raised by her wealthy relatives, the Bertrams, at Mansfield Park. It's a Cinderella-like fable built atop the solid foundation of Austen's cool, astute social satire.

The movie's Fanny, however, is a far cry from the passive, repressed--and to many, unlikable--heroine on the page. Using Austen's own letters and notebooks as source material, Rozema makes Fanny a more forthright, witty, morally decisive figure. Now a budding writer, she's a composite of Fanny and Austen herself. Dramatically this works: now she's more like the heroine of "Persuasion." We are duly appalled that this splendid girl is treated hardly better than a servant by the silly Bertram sisters, and bossed about by her aunt, the officious Mrs. Norris (Sheila Gish).

Her status at Mansfield Park begins to change with the arrival of the glamorous brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford (Alessandro Nivola and Embeth Davidtz). While the two Bertram girls fall into a swoon over the eligible and charming Henry, his eye is caught by Fanny--the one woman wise enough to see through his narcissism and frivolity. Fanny's true love is for her cousin Edmund (Jonny Lee Miller), her soulmate since they were children together. But the sophisticated Mary Crawford has Edmund sized up for marriage, and Fanny is too afraid to reveal her feelings to him (a fear that doesn't entirely jibe with this proto-feminist Fanny).

Rozema's handling of the entangled amours and social gamesmanship at Mansfield Park is delightful. O'Connor radiates Austenian intelligence, and the casting of playwright Harold Pinter as the powerful patriarch, Sir Thomas Bertram, is a coup. Glowering and deep-voiced, Pinter turns Sir Thomas into a fascinatingly complex figure--at once a model of courtly civility and a sinister slave trader with sexual secrets in his past.

Slave trader? Sexual secrets? If this doesn't sound like Jane Austen, it's because it isn't. Far more distracting than Rozema's revamping of Fanny Price, or her un-Janeish sexual explicitness, the director has grafted a 20th-century political sensibility onto the material, imposing a slave-trade subplot and taking P.C. potshots at these early-19th-century figures. This sort of historical back-seat driving can leave a smug aftertaste. But not enough, fortunately, to seriously mar one's enjoyment of a tale well told. The open-minded moviegoer will have a hard time resisting Rozema's stylish and stirring movie. It's impure Austen, but potent moviemaking.