Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Sense and Sensibility (1995) – As Good or Better Than the Novel

Written by Jane Austen and Emma Thompson
Directed by Ang Lee

My time in high school was before the rediscovery of the novels of Jane Austen. Perhaps that was good because I didn’t go into viewing some of the more modern film adaptations of her novels with any preconceived notions about how they should be. In the case of Sense and Sensibility that both helped and hurt.

With the inheritance laws in England, Mrs. Dash wood (portrayed by Gemma Jones) and her three daughters face eviction when her husband dies and his son by his first marriage, James (portrayed by James Fleet), comes to take over the home with his wife, Fanny (portrayed by Harriet Walter). Despite making a promise to his father on his deathbed to see that they all are cared for, James backs away from the commitment.

Fanny’s brother, Edward (portrayed by Hugh Grant) comes for a visit and is immediately enamored of the oldest Dashwood daughter, Elinor (portrayed by Emma Thompson). Elinor notices him due to the way he brings her youngest sister, Margaret (portrayed by Emilie Francois) out of her shell.

However, Fanny wants to exorcise Elinor from their lives and informs Mrs. Dashwood that Edward would basically be disowned if he were to marry beneath him. This leads Mrs. Dashwood to decide to take up her cousin on the offer to live at his cottage, far away from the only home her girls have ever known.

Living in the cottage is an adjustment for all of them from the manor house with servants they have been living in. It’s quite a bit smaller and much less opulent.

The middle daughter, Marianne (portrayed by Kate Winslet) attracts two suitors after the move. Colonel Brandon (portrayed by Alan Rickman) hears her singing and is immediately smitten. John Willoughby (portrayed by Greg Wise) comes to her rescue when she is injured while out on a walk. Their romance blossoms until he is suddenly called away to London. Marianne believes they have an understanding.

However, both women learn they have been deceived by men. Edward has carried on a secret engagement with a young woman by the name of Miss Lucy Steele (portrayed by Imogen Stubbs). Marianne loses Willoughby to a young lady who has a fifty thousand pound dowry. Elinor learns other things about Willoughby that make it clear that although he was about to propose to Marianne, it might not have been the best thing for her.

I had a hard time with Sense and Sensibility. On the surface, it is quite a good film. The story is quite romantic but has bits of comedy throughout as well. The pacing was great and I found myself totally enthralled by the story. The attention to detail in the costuming and setting was also quite good.

However, times have changed. It’s hard for a modern woman who has rejected the notion that a woman is somehow incomplete until she marries to entirely embrace the themes here. I understand the times are quite different. Back then, the only way a woman could advance her station in life was to “marry well”. Marriages were often more like corporate mergers as families sized each other up financially. Having a title and blue blood helped as well.

None of that seems to apply to the Dashwoods. Despite their father’s respectable station in life as well as his wealth, the women aren’t considered prize catches. That doesn’t stop them from being noticed by the prize catches of the day – they are just considered ill-suited to the families based on their wealth, or lack thereof.

My other issue was Emma Thompson in the role of Elinor. I didn’t even have to crack the novel open to know she was much older than how the character was originally written. Elinor is nineteen years old in the book, and Thompson was thirty-six when the film was released. She would have been considered a spinster in Regency England. During the commentary, Thomspon states she didn’t write the adaptation while being certain she would portray Elinor. It still has almost a Mary-Sue feel to it, though, as I can easily see a young woman reading the story and imagining herself as one of the Dashwood sisters. Her adaptation is wonderful and having recently started reading the novel, she takes the material from Austen’s story and improves on it in many ways. Thompson’s characters in the film come to life much more than Austen’s.

Thompson’s performance is fine, however. She portrays the staid, steady, reasonable sister quite well and manages to give Elinor plenty of warmth despite her reserved nature. I was distracted by Kate Winslet’s hair, but she also was terrific as the antithesis of her sister. They do share a warmth for each other, despite the fact that each of them believes the other is handling their romances all wrong. By the end of the film, both had learned something from the other.

The secondary characters are good. The one that really stood out for me was Imogen Stubbs as Elinor’s rival. She has Lucy be crafty in insinuating herself in Elinor’s life as she knows perfectly well Elinor has captured Edward’s fancy. At the same time, it’s not about to result in a catfight – that gets left to Fanny later on. Elinor especially has too much decorum to lower herself and is even placed in the position to help the two. Stubbs is crafty while at the same time naive in a way, especially in her scenes with Fanny. Elinor knows her standing with Edward’s family; Lucy Steele is still living the fairy tale.

Alan Rickman is also terrific in a role that is different for him. I am used to him portraying the villain. While he is not quite the romantic lead here, he does come off as having a better character than many of the other male characters. Colonel Brandon is not above reproach, but he has dealt with his errors rather than swept them under the rug. Colonel Brandon forms a bond of sorts with Elinor and for a while, I thought perhaps that is how the film would end. The best scenes do seem to be between Rickman and Thompson as there’s a bond of friendship forged.

One complaint I had with the production is that I had difficulty a couple of times with the dialogue being spoken so low that it was drowned out by the soundtrack and what was supposed to be the background noise. I don’t know if this was due to the transfer to DVD or if the theatrical release was plagued by the same issues.

I enjoyed Sense and Sensibility much more than I expected. I think it will end up in my DVD collection at some point. Although the film is not perfect, it is a history lesson of sorts while being entertaining and a bit suspenseful. Modern young women should appreciate the opportunities afforded them much more after seeing this.

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