I'm a fan of Austen's novel; in fact, I consider it her best work, with Persuasion not far behind. Her depiction of Fanny Price is one of the great psychological depictions of a timid soul in literature, and her complex narrative is her richest. Clearly I'm a bit of an Austen fanatic, so it was with trepidation that I approached Patricia Rozema's adaptation. Especially since I've heard it takes rather major liberties with what is Austen's most difficult and most rewarding work. I feared the worst.
It's not quite as bad as I feared; it's still not very good and most of the liberties that Rozema took are boneheaded blunders. While the Prices in the novel are clearly in a genteel poverty, that's too subtle for Rozema's approach: they have to be shown in full Dickensian squalor, with rats and maggots scurrying over the food. Her decision to drag slavery as a major subplot (it's barely hinted at in Austen) is insipid; it reduces the complex Sir Bertram to a cartoon bad guy for the sake of a facile connection between the status of women in Regency England and slavery, a point already clear from the social pressures that drives the plots of Austen's novels. But I do like some of her ideas; there's some interesting approaches to shaking the BBC stodginess that predominates period films and literary adaptations. Her use of direct camera address works; like in Orlando, it provides a quick emotional connection to a rather distant world and in the context of Austen, seems like an intriguing way to cinematize the importance of letter-writing among her contemporaries.
Which is about the only thing besides Swinton's performance I liked about it, unfortunately. Orlando's got a bad case of the Greenaways; it's too wrapped up in its formal dexterity to be engaging.