WARNING: This article describes the ending of Patricia Rozema's fine new Jane Austen film, Mansfield Park, so read at your own risk. However, if you don't already know how Jane Austen tales usually wrap up, I'd recommend getting out more often.

Somewhere near the middle of I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema's breakthrough feature, two tastefully attired women enveloped in a conversation about art take an effortless walk right across the top of a body of water. It's an accomplishment usually reserved for your chosen deity, but in Rozema's world the stroll is no more than a slightly fantastic aside, a dream of longing and liberation that illustrates the hope of her main character to escape the tragedy of a world filled with "half lives, half lived."

This sentiment runs through most of Rozema's recent work. Her lustrous, fanciful When Night is Falling concerns Camille, a beautiful Christian professor who is literally sent spinning by her newfound attraction to a sexy circus performer. The film is lighter than air, but floats engagingly by on a cloud of lush, homoerotic romanticism (there's a lesbian lovemaking scene that shames the glossy Deneuve/Sarandon tangle in The Hunger), and under the spell of what Camille tells her mythology students is "the human need for change." The characters make errors in judgment during their struggle, but no one is demonized in the war. Battle cries in Rozema films are usually awkward fumblings or quiet statements of yearning.

"I'm always attracted to marginalized characters," she concedes. "I think I've always felt like no one understands what it is to be me, but have you ever met a person that doesn't feel that? Everybody thinks that they're just misunderstood or not wholly understood. It's just a sad part of the human condition."

Mansfield Park, an adaptation of Jane Austen's novel that is Rozema's latest effort, is somehow strangely in sync with both Mermaids and Night. It tells the story of Fanny Price, a precocious girl from a poor family sent to live with wealthy relatives, who treat her special gentility as nothing more than the pretensions of a greedy beggar. Indomitable in the face of societal and familial restraints, she opens herself up to the wonders and sorrows of the world, maturing into a clever writer and gaining the devotion of her beloved Edmund. Fanny's goal, as she relates simply during the course of the story, is "to feel the equal of those who surround me," and it's that wish that would appear to suit Rozema's aesthetic, though the director swears it's never been an intentional pattern.

"I try actually not to have a strategy and I try not to use the word 'career,'" she says, as refreshingly plainspoken and down-to-earth as her heroines. "Would Picasso have talked about his career? Ugly. I won't make another film just because it's good for my career. I just try to wait until something feels crucial. Obviously, I'm going to feel something for women who are treated unjustly; that's something that's going to be close to my spirit."

With Austen a perplexingly hot commodity for the past few years, it's a valid concern to worry what new angle anyone could possibly bring to the author's cunning romantic satires. One more movie filled with the pithy comments of a lounging upper crust could likely bring the whole genre to its knees. Rozema, though, has an unusual slant, highlighting class degradation and sexual frankness, and expanding the book's passing references to the slave trade as supple counterpoints to Fanny's plight.

"I show the economic basis of all that leisure," the director says. "There's evil in the basement of Mansfield Park, and I show it. Just to focus on the fineries is half the picture. [This Austen adaptation] is not as fussy; it's more spare; the aesthetic is a little tougher. It's not all floral patterns and puffy sleeves."

For those who might find her take on the material out of step with how Austen's work is usually interpreted, Rozema, who holds English and philosophy degrees from a Calvinist institution in Michigan, counters that many of the film treatments have obscured the intricacies of the novels.

"What is amazing about Jane Austen is not always evident in the movies, because the plots aren't really that exciting," she maintains. "They're kind of just, yes, simple romances. What's thrilling in Austen is the detail, the satire. She says herself, 'I couldn't write a romance with a straight face.' But that gets lost because films become so plot fixated... film becomes so stripped down to plot."

While Mansfield Park isn't exactly brimming over with humor, it does pay grand attention to the little things. Its world is opened beyond the scope of the average costume epic by giving credit to the kind of small confrontations with self and society that most other period pieces gloss over. Even the acting choices are far less grand by comparison.

"There are many different kinds of acting styles, and the one I like is quite subtle, I think," says the director. "I just wanted [the acting] as deadpan as possible. I'm always telling [the actors], 'Throw it away.'"

"She just wanted me to be as much myself as I could be," says Frances O'Connor, Mansfield's lovely Fanny, by way of explaining her director's straightforward approach. "And just to be very authentic and kind of naturally in the role. And truthful... not to try to cover it with too many things."

The screenplay and direction certainly don't gentrify anything, but it's a mixed blessing. Without the traditional cinematic moorings for Austen's narrative, the crisp, funny dialogue feels written, too epigrammatic. Rozema's visuals, however, continue to describe what her words can't. There are luscious slow-motion sequences--a rapturous dance, a crushingly intimate humiliation--that are rare instances of the successful use of that device. The direction unfortunately wanders here and there in a way that may turn off those wanting a rerun of Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, but there's an intriguing subtlety to its treatment of Fanny.

"I think she just very quietly, and without people noticing, moves toward want she wants," says O'Connor of her character. "She has a very strong center and a very clear sense of who she is."

Her director sees that independence in relation to Austen's own state of being at the time of the novel's publication. "When she wrote this, her father had died; she didn't know where money was coming from anymore; life just looked a little less rosy," the filmmaker explains.

Rozema has an engrossing respect for the struggle of just being a woman--a stronger respect, perhaps, than even Austen's liberating femininity can accommodate. By meshing her adaptation of the novel with other letters and writings by Austen (who never did achieve the glowing embraces of her literary climaxes), Rozema has given Fanny a broader sense of purpose that almost gives you the anachronistic hope that the heroine will take off, à la My Brilliant Career, and shun the company of men altogether. Of course that doesn't happen,

"You want her to get the guy at the end, and the fact that she kind of smiles at the camera... it's like she's saying, 'I got him! Isn't this great? This is what's supposed to happen and it happened, to me, and I'm not even a Jane Austen heroine!'" O'Connor says, smiling. "I think there's something nice about that. She doesn't really fit into the mold, and she kind of feels uncomfortable the whole movie. But she knows she loves [Edmund], and that he's the right person for her."

Though the film takes a roundabout way to reach it, Mansfield's tender final clinch is still, in fact, that rare cinematic union that actually feels earned. We know why these characters are who they are; we've marveled at their choices. She may not be aware of it, but by riffing on the quirks in Austen's characters, Patricia Rozema has made a Patricia Rozema film.

"I often look at people and think, 'Well, no one's gonna bother with you right now, because you're just not pretty enough or handsome enough or articulate enough, or your resume isn't interesting enough,'" the filmmaker says with a gently unfettered compassion. "'But if I were to put a camera on you and watch you for a while and tell your story, we'd all watch you and we'd love you. We'd love you.'"

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