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Mansfield Park
cast: Billie Piper, Michelle Ryan, Blake Ritson, Hayley Atwell, and Catherine Steadman

director: Ian B. McDonald

93 minutes (PG) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
ITV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
Jane Austen's story of the lives and loves of the inhabitants of Mansfield Park is the latest in the current wave of period TV dramas. However, following the huge success of the BBC's bravura version of Bleak House, this is a distinctly modern take on the novel that many fans may be turned off by. That said, those who might view spending time with Austen as akin to being slowly smothered to death in a chintz factory may be in for a pleasant surprise.

The plot follows Fanny Price (Billie Piper), a young girl sent to live with her rich aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Bertram. Along with her four cousins Fanny grows up at the house but is always treated as inferior by its inhabitants. Despite this, she maintains a positive, upbeat attitude towards her life and slowly becomes closer to Edmund (Blake Ritson), the only one of her cousins to show her any kindness. However, when Mr and Miss Crawford (Joseph Beattie and Hayley Atwell) arrive, matters get significantly more complicated...

Austen, increasingly, fits into the same category as Shakespeare. You know exactly what you're getting here, from start to finish and it all comes down to the delivery. Whilst Mansfield Park plays fast and loose with the subject matter, it does so with such energetic humour that you can't help but be carried along with it. This is a thoroughly modern Mansfield, the dialogue crackling with the sort of sparkle and energy normally reserved for well-written comedy.

The cast also help immensely. Douglas Hodge and Gemma Redgrave make an excellent, frosty but sympathetic, pair as the heads of the house whilst the cousins are all given their space to shine. Of all of them, Ritson manages to bring something interesting to the 'straight man' role Edmund is doomed to play whilst Atwell and Beattie do tremendous work as the Crawfords, playing them as something close to a period pair of rock stars.

However, the casting of Piper, criticised in some quarters, is what really shines. Fanny is the quintessential every-woman, a charming young girl who does her best and must be perfect without visibly so, likeable but not sickly. In the hands of a lesser actress she'd be a personality vacuum but with Piper she's played with wit, charm and affection.

This is Jane Austen for everyone who's ever enjoyed a rom-com, crackling with energy and a young cast at the top of their faculties. Purists may not like but if this is the blueprint for Austen to survive into the 21st century then her work is clearly in safe hands.

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