Empty9-11 p.m. Sunday, March 18
LONDON -- The first in ITV's high-profile new season of Jane Austen adaptations, "Mansfield Park," is a disappointingly muted affair in which the 18th century tale of poor Fanny Price and her life with wealthy relations plays out predictably.
Writer Maggie Wadey's treatment lacks the flair that recent Austen screen outings have displayed and director Iain B. MacDonald sets a pedestrian pace. Still, the acting is fine and so are the costumes and locations. Austen lovers will be neither outraged nor especially pleased by a production that is merely dull and Billie Piper, having abandoned the time travels of "Doctor Who," makes a believable Fanny with her mouthful of teeth and mischievous eyes.
Fanny arrives at the country home of the Bertrams as a child and grows up as a second-class citizen under the thumb of smarmy Mrs. Norris (Maggie O'Neill). Still, patriarch Sir Thomas (Douglas Hodge) and his wife (Jemma Redgrave) are kind and second son Edmund (Blake Ritson) is even kinder.
Austen's novels are more about money than about romance, and the matter of finances is not ignored in Wadey's teleplay although romance, or the lack of it, occupies center stage. It's important that daughters Maria (Michelle Ryan) and Julia (Catherine Steadman) make prosperous marriages while first-born Tom (James D'Arcy) can pick and choose although he'd rather go to the racetrack.
Sensing rich pickings, well-placed orphans Mary (Hayley Atwell) and Henry Crawford (Joseph Beattie) tip their hats at the most obvious sources of reliable income within the Bertram family. With Tom on the path to an early death, Mary settles on Edmund, whose interest is peaked despite his plans to become a member of the cloth. When Henry's attempted seduction of Maria fails, he decides he'd like to make Fanny fall in love with him. "Make a little hole in her heart," as he tells his sister.
Austen's stories are too sturdy to be ruined, and so while sparks never truly fly and much of the author's subtlety is gone, the fate of the various women, and especially Fanny, does become engaging.
Piper demonstrates once again that she is a very capable actress and there will be much to look forward to if her career choices go well. But it's Atwell, as Mary, who steals this show with her insouciant sex appeal and droll rendering of lines.
And then there's the glorious Newby Hall and gardens at Ripon in North Yorkshire, which stand in as the Bertram family home. Many viewers will want to watch just for this grand Adams house, and for Mike O'Neill's costumes, and they won't be disappointed.
Writer: Maggie Wadey
Executive producers: Charlie Pattinson, George Faber
Producer: Suzan Harrison
Director: Iain B. MacDonald
Director of photography: Nick Dance
Production designer: Tim Hutchinson
Editor: Melanie Oliver
Costume designer: Mike O'Neill
Composer: John Keane
Fanny Price: Billie Piper
Edmund: Blake Ritson
Sir Thomas: Douglas Hodge
Lady Bertram: Jemma Redgrave
Mrs. Norris: Maggie O'Neill
Tom: James D'Arcy
Maria: Michelle Ryan
Julia: Catherine Steadman
Mary Crawford: Hayley Atwell
Henry Crawford: Joseph Beattie
Rushworth: Rory Kinnear
William: Joseph Morgan