Metropolitan, a film directed by Whit Stillman in 1990, is said to be loosely based on Mansfield Park. Therefore it may come as no surprise that I was keen to see how one of my favourite novels has inspired a modern film-maker.
Like Mansfield Park, Metropolitan is a comedy of manners, but it is a modern take, set amongst a group of upper-class urban youth in Manhattan. A group of young girls and men are on holiday from college and get together for the debutante season. Dressed in smocks and white ruffles, they attend formal ball room parties and after parties at each others’ houses and get into intense discussions on social status and mobility.
Nick Smith, a Harvard student, introduces Tom Townsend, a less well-off Princeton student, to the group as an escort for the girls. One of the girls, Audrey Rouget, is soon charmed by his nonconformist views and strong principles. However, like Mansfield park, Metropolitan is largely a story of unrequited love. While Audrey – our modern day Fanny – likes Tom, Tom - as our Edmund - is obsessed with his not-so-faithful ex-girlfriend, Serena Slocum. It takes a few twists and turns before Tom realises that Audrey is what Serena will never be – a good person with strong morals who truly cares about him.
Interestingly, Audrey is a great fan of Jane Austen. She tells Tom that her two favourite books are Mansfield Park and Persuasion. To her dismay, Tom – without ever having read the book – disagrees with her.
“Mansfield Park…is a notoriously bad book”. “The whole story revolves around the immorality of a group of youngsters putting on a play.” “The context of the novel, and nearly everything that Jane Austen wrote looks ridiculous from today’s perspective.”
To this, Audrey argues back,
“Has it ever occurred to you that today, from Jane Austen’s perspective, would look even worse?”
Tom continues to say what the literary critic, Lionel Trilling, says about Austen:
“No one would like the heroine of Mansfield Park.”
Audrey aptly argues,
“Do modern people resent Mansfield Park because its heroine is virtuous?”
To Audrey’s relief, Tom later gets round to reading some Jane Austen and tells her that he “liked” Persuasion and was “surprised” at it being so good!
While the story is only very loosely based on Mansfield Park, Jane Austen is always there in the background as a strong moral backbone for the youngsters. Amongst the girls and young men, there is a conflict between what constitutes right and wrong behaviour, and who is a good person and who is not. The film has its Austenesque romantic seducer-villain, Rick Von Sloneker, who stands as a rival to the men. The men are convinced that he is not a good person and are desperate to show this the girls, rushing off to rescue them from his charms. Mansfield Park is the most moralistic of all of Jane Austen’s novels, and this moral tone carries on to Metropolitan as well.
What Audrey sees at a shop window…
In the novel, Fanny is against setting up a play, “Lover’s Vows”, as she feels that it may not be a good influence during Sir Thomas’s absence. In the film, the others suggest playing a game of “Truth”, while Audrey is strongly against playing it. Like Fanny, she morally argues against it:
“There are good reasons why people don’t go around telling people their most intimate thoughts… I just know that games like this can be really dangerous”.
Incidentally, it is Audrey who has to give in and who, in the end, suffers from the consequences of “Truth”.
The screenplay is an excellent take on Austenesque dry wit and clever dialogue, and Nick Smith’s sarcastic remarks - in a style not unlike Woody Allen’s - are particularly enjoyable. While I wouldn’t go as far as to call Metropolitan an adaptation of Jane Austen, I would say that it is a comedy of manners and morals in the style of Jane Austen with plenty of references to her work.
Have you seen Metropolitan, and if yes, and what was your impression?