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DIFFERENT STROKES 'MANSFIELD PARK' WOULD HAVE SHOCKED AUSTEN

MANSFIELD PARK
* 1/2
STARRING : Frances O'connor, Embeth Davidtz, Jonny Lee Miller.

DIRECTOR: Patricia Rozema

RUNNING TIME: 110 Minutes

RATING: Pg-13 for adult situations

THE LOWDOWN: A penniless girl is sent to live on a wealthy estate, where she falls in love with the estate owner's son.
"It should have turned out differently, but it didn't."
That's a line people kept repeating, laconically, in "Mansfield Park," the latest Jane Austen book to hit the screen. (Try not to think of the Dixie Chicks wailing, "Should have turned out right, but it didn't!" I didn't know they owed an artistic debt to English literature.)

"It should have turned out differently, but it didn't." The line kept coming back to me as the movie minced forward. The filmmakers, judging from their explanations to the press, had gone through a lot of trouble creating "Mansfield Park." They found Fanny, the heroine of the novel, a little dull, so they went through Austen's letters and journals and tried to make Fanny more like her. They noticed how Jane Austen commented on the slave trade in "Mansfield Park," so they spotlighted that issue. Finally, they played a shocking ace -- they threw in some sex.

Sex! In Jane Austen! During the hand-wringing that follows, one of the characters makes the mistake of suggesting that "big dinners and large parties" can patch things up. Her suggestion is greeted with outrage. And no wonder.

I was outraged, too. Where was all this in the book?

I read "Mansfield Park" as a teen-ager and remember a lot of it. It was a flawed book, perhaps -- it ended abruptly, I remember, as if Austen had lost interest in it. But she had a good story going. Why make a hash out of it? And a bland hash at that (the sex might have been a last-minute, vain attempt to spice it up). As a Merchant Ivory kind of gal, I never thought I'd say this about a Regency romance -- but I couldn't wait for this turkey to end.

The movie follows the book only in the initial basics: Poor, penniless Fanny is shipped to wealthy Mansfield Park to stay with her aunt, Mrs. Norris, the housekeeper there. Fanny becomes sweet on Edmund, one of the owner's sons. But she has a different place in society, and she knows it.

That's where the fiction ends and the new fiction begins.

Mrs. Norris, one of those wonderful, towering Jane Austen fools, is wasted in the movie. She gets hardly any lines. (In the book, she gets all of them.) The daughters of the owner of Mansfield Park are vague, watercolored shadows in the background.

The story takes ridiculous turns. Fanny, at one point, goes back home to her squalid seaside village; ludicrously, the swain who adores her follows her there. In his embroidered waistcoat, he has dinner with her family, eating gruel with unwashed cutlery amidst unwashed babies. He isn't repelled by this, or particularly distressed. Tell me Jane Austen would have asked us to believe this.

Now for aesthetic concerns. Frances O'Connor, with her wide smile, brings some needed charm to the role of Fanny, and Embeth Davidtz (the Jewish maid in "Schindler's List") is a hoot as Fanny's off-and-on friend Mary Crawford, an enjoyable nasty. But the guys, in contrast, are wan and not even nice to look at! Early-1800s sideburns notwithstanding, couldn't they have come up with someone better than Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund? He's a sunken-cheeked weirdo who, if I'm not mistaken, wore lipstick through most of the movie. (Maybe that's to be expected, since he starred in "Trainspotting.")

On the plus side, the movie treats us to a few funny back-in-time jokes. ("This is 1806. The world has changed.") And it's fun to hear literate speech, to bask in a setting in which an icy "I beg your pardon" can render someone more shamed and craven than a four-letter word ever could.

There are adorable Kate Greenaway lace gowns, miles of hair ribbons, and a misty dance scene in which the partners, clasping gloved hands, look into each other's eyes one by one. There are horses and coaches and goblets of wine.

It should have turned out differently, but it didn't. There are, as the characters themselves discover, some things that even big dinners and large parties can't fix.

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