In England, Billie Piper is the pre-meltdown Britney Spears. A former pop star who's now an actress in her 20s, she has had a very public career with chart hits, nightclub antics, romantic controversies, financial troubles, and one very gruesome stalker. With her bleached-blond hair, dark eyebrows, and toothy white smile, Piper has walked the always culturally provocative line between cute neighborhood girl and sexed-up icon.
Tomorrow night, Piper takes on Fanny Price, the shy, morally sound heroine of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park." And Piper wins, big-time, as she pulls poor, pious Fanny over onto the Billie Piper side of life. In this third adaptation in PBS's Austen "Masterpiece" season, our pre-Victorian introvert is a ravishing wild child who recalls Madonna in a Herb Ritts video, or a stoned hippie chick in "Woodstock," more than a polite teen in a bonnet and frock. In "Mansfield Park," tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 2, Fanny's rather rockin'.
In Austen's story, the demure Fanny has lived with her relations, the Bertrams, since childhood, due to her own family's financial woes. The Bertrams openly treat Fanny as an inferior, a half-step or so above a servant. There is a clear social divide in the household. Only one of her four cousins, Edmund (Blake Ritson), appreciates her loyalty and sensitivity. Now well into her teens, Fanny begins to realize that her love for Edmund is not sisterly. But Edmund has been seduced by the scheming Mary Crawford (Hayley Atwell). And Fanny is coming under pressure to marry Mary's brother, the spineless Henry (Joseph Beattie). Fanny's angry uncle finally sends her back to her impoverished family and their crummy home, where, amid poverty, she softens slightly toward Henry.
Written by Maggie Wadey and directed by Iain B. MacDonald, the PBS adaptation breezes along regardless of the subtle manners indigenous to Austen's world or the intense reserve that marked so many of Austen's women. All the conflicts and tensions are EZ-to-read - the Crawfords, for example, who are too clearly undesirable, and Edmund's older brother, who is rarely seen without a wine glass in his hand.
Piper's Fanny is little more than a stubborn Cinderella who always gets left at home. There's nothing timid or intelligent about her. A nature child with flowing locks, she's even a little bit flirty. And Fanny is never sent back to her poor family in the movie, so her economic vulnerabilities - such an important element in Austen's novels - are left vague and unexplored. Meanwhile, Ritson's Edmund, with his pointed nose and rock-star haircut, looks something like a young Rod Stewart.
Ultimately, this "Mansfield Park" makes Patricia Rozema's excellent 1999 version (in which Fanny is made into an Austen-like writer) seem stubbornly loyal to the author. That said, there is something mildly pleasing about the new production, if you can forget about the novel on which it's based. The movie doesn't have sobriety, wit, or social satire, but it still has spirit. It's a pretty little love story, no more and no less.