Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema is known for making films imbued with feminist passion that enrapture art-house audiences even as they mystify those headed for the multiplex. She made an auspicious feature directorial debut in 1987 with I've Heard the Mermaids Singing. The story of an unfulfilled thirty-something single woman living in Toronto, the film -- which Rozema also wrote, co-produced, and edited -- earned stellar reviews and was subsequently voted by 100 international critics, filmmakers, and scholars as one of the ten best Canadian films ever made. Rozema went on to win additional recognition with her somewhat controversial adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, which was released in 1999.
The daughter of strict Dutch Calvinist immigrants, Rozema was born in Ontario in 1958 and raised in Sarnia, a small petrochemical industrial town on Lake Huron. Growing up with little access to films or TV, it was not until she went on a date to see The Exorcist (1973) that she was properly introduced to the cinema. After going on to earn her B.A. in philosophy and English literature at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI (where she also won a number of awards for theatrical writing and directing), she returned to Canada in 1981 and worked on the CBC nightly news program The Journal. Rozema began her film career five years later after taking a five-week-long night course in film production. She debuted with Passion: A Letter in 16mm, a short that garnered a prize at the 1985 Chicago Film Festival. Two years later, after working as an assistant director on David Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) and on a few television series, she made her major directorial debut with I've Heard the Mermaids Singing.
The spirited, deeply felt tale of an aspiring photographer (the superb Sheila McCarthy) who develops a complicated relationship with her employer, an elegant but bitter art curator (Paule Baillargeon), I've Heard the Mermaids Singing won the Prix de la Jeuness at Cannes that year and a lavish dose of international acclaim for Rozema. Distributed in over 40 countries, its success created anticipation for the filmmaker's next feature, 1991's The White Room. The story of a struggling writer (Maurice Godin) whose witnessing of the murder of a singer (Margot Kidder) drives him on a quest for redemption, The White Room was described by one reviewer as "a work of dark, conflicted magic that might have been cut from Blue Velvet by Edward Scissorhands." Overtly intellectual and filled with self-conscious symbolism, it was not as warmly received as Rozema's previous work. She followed it with a short contribution to Montreal Vu Par... (1991), an anthology film commissioned to celebrate Montreal's 350th birthday which also showcased the work of Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand, Léa Pool, Michael Brault, and Jacques Leduc.
Rozema's next directorial effort, When Night Is Falling (1995), did not enjoy nearly the same amount of acclaim as her previous films. A drama about a Christian college professor (Pascale Bussières) who becomes romantically involved with a beautiful circus performer (Rachel Crawford), the film was long on magical realism but short, as many reviewers pointed out, on convincing dialogue and uncontrived plot. Aside from directing the television documentary Yo-Yo Ma Inspired By Bach: Six Gestures (1997), Rozema did not return to the director's chair until 1998, when she adapted Austen's Mansfield Park for the screen. Although the film drew fire from Austen scholars for its inclusion of sex scenes and implied lesbian desire, it earned fairly good reviews and did sound business at the box office. It was also strengthened by the work of its cast, which included Frances O'Connor as the heroine Fanny Price, Jonny Lee Miller, Alessandro Nivola, and Embeth Davidtz.