Patricia Rozema cannot be defined by one genre

As part of our Celebration Series, FF2 Media pays tribute to the work of female filmmakers. Be sure to click on the film titles for full reviews & see where you can stream on JustWatch.com.

Patricia Rozema has dabbled in different genres across her career, refusing to become defined by any one type of film. Furthermore, the films she makes stand out within their own genres. Her movies are sensitive and character-focused, whether they are biographical or apocalyptic. She has made many adaptations of plays and books, always putting a fresh and new twist on her source material. This article will take a closer look at three films that demonstrate the breadth of her work: her Jane Austen adaptation Mansfield Park, the children’s movie Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, and the serious drama Into the Forest

Rozema is from Ontario, Canada and was raised without much access to television. She studied philosophy and English literature at Calvin College in Michigan and after graduating, worked as a journalist including as an associate producer at CBC’s The Journal in Toronto. When she decided she wanted to transition into film, she took a filmmaking course at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. She worked as an assistant director and an assistant on a variety of television shows and had many proposals rejected before her first success. Rozema is openly lesbian and has two children with her former partner. 

Rozema’s first feature was I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing which won her the Prix de la Jeunesse at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. She also directed Six Gestures, which was part of the Inspired by Bach television series which combined footage of Yo-Yo Ma performing with ice skating sequences. The work was nominated for a Grammy and won the PrimeTime Emmy Award for Outstanding Classical Music-Dance Program. She has directed play adaptations including Happy Days, an Irish film based on a Samuel Beckett play, and her most recent film, Mouthpiece

Rozema was nominated for an Emmy Award  for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special and for a Writers Guild of America Award for her work on the HBO film Grey Gardens. Rozema has an impressive television resume as well having directed episodes of Tell Me You Love Me, In Treatment, Mozart in the Jungle, and Anne with an E. 

In 1999, Rozema’s revisionist adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park was released and stirred up controversy within the Austen community. The film stars Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller and was written and directed by Rozema. Mansfield Park is about a girl named Fanny Price who is sent to live with her mother’s wealthier relatives as a young child. The costumes in the film are lovely and Rozema expertly utilizes the house that they filmed in, Kirby Hall. It also has a great dance scene full of romantic tension, as every Austen adaptation should. 

Kit Kittredge- An American Girl Mystery (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Rozema’s Fanny Price is a far cry from the main character of the novel. Fanny is perhaps the most annoying of Austen’s heroines; she is meek and passive to the point of prudishness. Rozema updated her for a modern audience by giving her many characteristics of Austen herself. For example, in this version, Fanny is a writer and she even pens “The History of England,” a work that Austen wrote in her youth. Her bad health and frailty in the novel are replaced by a woman who seems more herself out of doors. The Fanny of this film may seem more like Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, but she is certainly more palatable to today’s viewers than the character would normally be. 

Rozema made other significant changes to the novel for her screenplay, beyond its main character. She took out some characters and transformed others: Sir Thomas is more formidable, while Susan and Fanny are closer. She also layers in some sexual tension between Fanny and Mary Crawford, her rival for Edmund’s heart, and builds up the romance between Fanny and Henry Crawford to the point of it being difficult to understand why she refuses him eventually. Most significantly, she weaves slavery throughout the story much more than Austen did with Fanny seeing a slave ship off the coast as a little girl and finding her cousin’s sketches of the treatment of slavery he witnessed in the islands. These changes sharpened the narrative and made Austen’s social commentary more obvious. 

Rozema’s Kit Kittredge: An American Girl was the only one of the movies based on the American Girl Dolls and their books to receive a theatrical release. The film was written by Ann Peacock, based on the Kit Kittredge stories by Valerie Tripp, and directed by Rozema. The film focuses on a young girl and aspiring reporter who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio during the Great Depression. When Kit’s father loses his job, her family takes in boarders to help make ends meet; Kit also befriends two young “hobo” boys who are traveling around doing odd-jobs in exchange for food. 

The film deviates from the original Kit series fairly strongly, but creates a suspenseful and charming story. The cast is impressive: aside from a young Abigail Breslin and Willow Smith, it stars Stanley Tucci as a magician, Joan Cusack as a traveling librarian, and Jane Krakowski as a dancer. The film shows how life during the Depression was hard on families and how many were broken up as brothers and fathers left to find work elsewhere, while still taking on more normal topics like bullies at school. It’s a surprisingly upbeat film about the Depression, heartwarming enough to keep the attention of adults while still child-appropriate. 

Rozema wrote and directed Into the Forest based on Jean Hegland’s 1996 novel of the same name. The film stars Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as grad student Nell and dancer Eva, two sisters trying to survive in an apocalypse taking place in the near future. The film has an almost A24 indie feel to it and boasts fantastic performances from its leads. There is a rape scene in the film, but it’s one of the most well-done ones I’ve seen in how it’s completely non-sexualized and features no nudity; it’s depicted as a traumatic act of violence. 

Into the Forest is not your typical apocalypse film and actually features almost no action. Instead, it’s a very intimate portrait of how the two sisters deal with their situation. There are moments of normality as they continue to dance and study even though it’s clear that the world will never be normal. It’s a loose adaptation of the novel and cuts out certain plotlines, as you might expect, but is probably more accurate than the previous two films discussed. 

Rozema may ruffle some feathers with her adaptations because they’re not always faithful to the books or plays that they’re based on, but she has a fascinating ability to shift a story to make it feel fresh and modern. Her work sometimes becomes even more relevant after it’s made, like Kit Kittredge: An American Girl being released in 2008 just as the financial crisis was occurring or how much more real Into the Forest feels now that we’re quarantined. Rozema’s next project is directing episodes of the new television series Sex/Life. Rozema always manages to make films that benefit from her fresh perspective regardless of which genre they belong to. 

© Nicole Ackman (5/21/20) FF2 Media

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Nicole Ackman
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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Contributor based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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