“If there was anything I knew for certain, it was that Pride and Prejudice was a very stupid book, and that Jane Austen was a very stupid writer, and that I would never, ever read one of her stupid books again…I was thirteen years old.”
- Lindsay Doran (producer of Sense and Sensibility)
One of the infinite joys from my movie-going experience has remained Sense and Sensibility (1995): the exquisite adaptation, nee quintessence, of Jane Austen’s adroitly humorous and utterly astute critique of social mores and mannerisms. These have been brought winningly to life by director, Ang Lee, in all their rich flourish and rewarding accoutrements. It is, I think, a picture that goes well beyond mere quality: Emma Thompson’s vibrant translation of Austen’s rather wordy prose into even more ribald and spirited byplay amongst England’s hoi poloi; the exceptional ensemble of cultured thespians accrued under master storyteller and vigilant visual artist, Ang Lee; Patrick Doyle’s enchanted underscore - the pluperfect expression of this pastoral romantic comedy; Luciana Arrighi’s impeccable production design; Jenny Beavan and John Bright’s celebration of the empire waist line – et al. Each facet of the movie-making apparatus has come together as in the old days of fastidiously planned and magnificently executed ‘home grown’ and/or in-house studio-made assembly line. For all the aforementioned reasons, Sense and Sensibility has magnificently endured.
Jane Austen’s novels have long been admired, though not always by literary critics and scholars. All the more perplexing then, that one of Austen’s most popular and enduring masterpieces – Sense and Sensibility (humbling to consider it her first novel) – had never before been made into a movie until Emma Thompson elected to take a crack at the material. At once, the book has everything one might hope for; strong, independently-minded and interesting characters (and caricatures), a supremely satisfying love story (or rather, three interwoven and unfolding for the reader in tandem), a few surprises along the way, and, a lot of witty banter, rife for humorous situations derived from life. Years, after her prepubescent snap analysis of Austen, film producer, Lindsay Doran would make it her personal calling to do a picture based on at least one Austen novel – preferably, Sense and Sensibility which, in the interim, had easily become her favorite. Alas, kismet was not immediately forthcoming. In fact, it took time; ten years, before Doran landed a job for director, Sidney Pollack’s Mirage Productions; encouraged to pursue her dream project while working on others to pay the bills. Fortuitously, Doran’s first movie for Mirage was Dead Again (1991); a thriller co-starring then marrieds Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Doran quickly discovered a kinship with Thompson over their mutual affinity for Austen.
Again, time passed; Thompson toiling in between other projects, writing drafts and scenes, and cutting, pruning and reshaping the material to suit the demands of a modern motion picture; tidying up the dialogue and telescoping Austen’s sprawling narrative to a finitely focused story about Elinor and Marianne – the Dashwood sisters; the former in danger of becoming an old maid; the latter, destined to have her passionate heart broken. In resurrecting Austen’s wicked verve for social satire, Thompson was mindful that any adaptation of Sense and Sensibility could not simply ape Austen’s prose or excise whole portions of her original text with new narrative bridges to connect these scenes together. The requirements of a period picture needed to be delicately preserved for Austen purists. But the film need not be slavishly devoted to them either. In fact, in creating her final draft, Thompson was cautioned by Sidney Pollack to appeal to more contemporary tastes while remaining true to the essence and spirit of Austen’s own sentiment. Even when merely perusing Sense and Sensibility one is acutely aware of Austen’s admiration and/or contempt for the characters she describes and the classicist morals she judges with remarkable clarity and razor-sharp precision: her poisoned pen, ironically, never seeming belligerent or insincere. The trick of the screenplay would therefore be to preserve this quality. In this regard, Emma Thompson’s Golden Globe-winning (and Oscar-nominated) screenplay ought to be considered a paradigm, cleverly seizing upon and maintaining the Austonian mystique.
Ang Lee was not a devotee of Austen at the time he committed to directing Sense and Sensibility. But he came to this project with a striking passion for the work, deriving a deeper meaning from the novel’s ‘sense’ and ‘sensibilities’ – the quintessence of life itself; a parable for life’s tenuous balance of joys and sadness; the great mystery, tragedy, and divine erring of humanity caught in the throes of its own human comedy. If we may pause a moment to judge Emma Thompson’s turn as the elder Schlegel sister in Howards End (1992) as illustrative of her formidable powers of observation as a very fine actress, blessed with stately patrician beauty, then her performance as the emotionally disciplined Elinor in Sense and Sensibility unequivocally illuminates a more earthy appeal, teeming in introspection. Thompson is surrounded by an enviable roster of British talent in Sense and Sensibility, many to whom everlasting fame and fortune had been narrowly avoided on this side of the Atlantic. Too few would quickly establish themselves as forces to be reckoned with in Hollywood: Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Hugh Laurie and Alan Rickman among the cherished names now very much a part of our international film and television appreciation, but until Sense and Sensibility, hardly blips on the radar. To be sure, there is not one false note among this cast.
Sense and Sensibility relates to its audience on an almost heartbreaking emotional level; its clever writing expertly paced by Ang Lee and played out with gusto, exceptionally stitched in the editing room by Tim Squyres from the ‘fine boned’ features of Austen’s own aristocratic wit and charm. And yet, largely, it is not Austen we hear or see verbatim in this movie; rather, Thompson’s brilliant reincarnation of the authoress, speaking in her tone and tongue with a decided relish for the crisp flavor of Austen, but without copying her sassy criticisms verbatim. As such, it is as though we are hearing and seeing Austen for the very first time; uncannily, on her own terms – a bit less conservative and considerably more relaxed, perhaps; but strangely satisfying nonetheless, despite being radically different from the novel. It is difficult (if not impossible) not to be wholly absorbed into this plushy pastoral social sphere, exuberantly realized by Michael Coulters’ utterly gorgeous cinematography. Under Coulter’s inspiration, the pictorial aspects take on an almost David Lean quality – minus Lean’s verve for the extended long shot; Coulter and Lee conspiring to keep the action tightly contained within a series of two shots and using the close-up and establishing shot sparingly, though nevertheless, to equally magnificent effect. I was also reminded of cinematographer, Nicholas Roeg’s contributions on 1967’s Far From The Madding Crowd. Yet, here, at last, is the world of Jane Austen as she wrote it, or rather, as we who have basked for so long in our own imaginings of the novel might expect it to appear concretely, down to every last minute detail brought forth with a varied and textured voracity that engorges our ‘senses’ almost from the moment the main titles disappear.
Taiwanese-born, Ang Lee’s great contribution to this production is a fresh pair of eyes; his undeniable grasp of Austen on an almost intuitive level; tapping into Austen’s sublime raconteur while allowing these characters to discover their own core within the situations and relationships as presented; an almost natural progression in a movie more highly stylized than most. Sense and Sensibility harks all the way back to a style of film-making from Hollywood’s golden era that briefly experienced a renaissance during the mid-1990's. Arguably, the public’s passion for old English dramadies has never entirely run its course; still alive and well in BBC produced TV shows like Downton Abbey, though arguably seeing its last gasp on American movie screens with Robert Altman’s memorable ensemble piece, Gosford Park (2001). English drama is one thing. English farce another. Making either palpable to an international audience is no small feat, however; the vinegar and vim either diluted or translating very badly. Yet Sense and Sensibility has so obviously been made by a cast and crew who feel Jane Austen in their bones and are able to treasure, translate, and above all else, share this affection beyond the footlights. The movie emerges wholly ravishing; the perfect ‘date movie’ or just a very fine way to spend some rainy/snowy afternoon.
Our story opens with an ominous event; the quiet expiration of the elder Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) who, on his death bed, makes his son from a previous marriage and soul heir to Norland Park - John (James Fleet) - promise he will do everything he can to ensure his stepmother (Gemma Jones) and stepsisters, Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Margaret (Emilie François) are properly cared for in a manner befitting their station. John willingly and compassionately agrees to this. However, through a series of vignettes we witness his head and heart gradually turned away from discharging this duty by his greedy/snobbish wife, Fanny (Harriet Walter) who aims to make Norland her fashionable home. Mrs. Dashwood is distraught at the prospect of vacating her late husband’s estate; a decision more pragmatically embraced by Elinor who begins to make inquiries for a house they can manage with their rather squalid inheritance of only £500 a year.
Fanny installs herself as the mistress of Norland and shortly thereafter invites her brother, Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) for a visit; insisting Edward be given Marianne’s room for his quarters because the view of the gardens from it is spectacular. Instead, Edward graciously accepts a room in the guest quarters, incurring Fanny’s immediate displeasure. This is exacerbated when Edward begins to court Elinor; the two famously hitting things off. Marianne questions Elinor on her emotions and finds her sister’s approach to love does not match with her own. “To love,” so Marianne explains, “…is to be on fire” with passion. This gullibility leads Marianne into a relationship with the impossibly handsome rake, John Willoughby (Greg Wise); a dashing, though deceitful playboy who quite easily steals Marianne’s heart.
In the meantime, Mrs. Dashwood elects to move the family to a cottage on the estate of Barton Park in Devonshire; the ancestral home belonging to her widowed first cousin, Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy); now living in the grand manor house with his rather harmless, though meddlesome mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs). Fanny ensures no further entanglement will develop between Edward and Elinor by recalling her brother to London under false pretenses. At Barton Park, Marianne is admired by the elder Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman); a devoted, though rather passionless suitor who allows Marianne her indulgences with Willoughby. Unbeknown to the Dashwoods, Brandon’s ward Beth, the illegitimate daughter of his former lover, has been made pregnant by Willoughby. Upon learning this news Willoughby’s aunt, Lady Allen disinherits him. Willoughby goes away without ever revealing to Marianne the motives for his departure.
In the meantime, Mrs. Jennings invites her scatterbrain daughter, Charlotte (Imelda Staunton) and droll son-in-law, Mr. Palmer (Hugh Laurie) for a visit. The pair also brings the impoverished Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs) along. Lucy confides in Elinor a secret ‘understanding’ between her and Fanny’s brother. Mistaking the attachment as Edward’s shatters Elinor’s hopes for ever finding true love; a crushing bewilderment made all the more painful by Mrs. Jenning’s constant nattering over the identity of Elinor’s secret love. Marianne finds Mrs. Jennings’ playful inquisitiveness utterly distasteful. But when Mrs. Jennings proposes an adventure in London, she also takes Lucy, Elinor, and Marianne to a grand ball, attended by Fanny and Willoughby. Elinor learns Lucy’s secret attachment is to Fanny’s younger brother, Robert (Richard Lumsden) – not Edward – and breathes a sigh of relief. It is, regrettably, short-lived. For Marianne, having spied Willoughby from across the crowded room, buoyantly calls out to him before hurrying to his side. He barely acknowledges their former acquaintance and Marianne, in a state of shock and disbelief, follows him into an adjacent room where she quickly learns the enterprising rogue has become engaged to the extremely wealthy Miss Grey (Lone Vidahl) for obvious reasons. Inconsolable, Marianne remains bedridden and tear-stained while the clandestine affair between Robert and Lucy comes to light after Lucy reveals to Fanny the two have secretly married, thus incurring Fanny’s formidable wrath.
Departing for home, Elinor and Marianne elect to stop the night at the Palmer’s vast country estate not far from Willoughby’s ancestral home. Marianne is compelled to make the journey to her former lover’s house and is caught in a terrible storm as a result; succumbing to a virulent bout of pneumonia. She is rescued from certain peril at the last possible moment by Colonel Brandon. Elinor and Brandon both remain vigilant at Marianne’s bedside, fearing the worst but praying for her recovery. Learning of Lucy’s marriage to Robert, Edward finds he is free to marry Elinor and proposes. Marianne recovers and Colonel Brandon likewise enters into an agreement with her to marry. In the final moments we see Elinor and Edward emerge from the church where he has become the vicar, the pair escorting the newlyweds Marianne and Colonel Brandon in a joyous spectacle of pageantry witnessed from afar by a panged Willoughby, seemingly alone and recognizing what a fool he has been.
Sense and Sensibility concludes thus on a bittersweet note; arguably unimpeded by the immeasurable joyfulness of these penultimate and thoroughly satisfying revelations. In reviewing the movie again, it all seems so obviously – nee, effortlessly perfect, one can easily forget Emma Thompson spent nearly five years writing and re-writing her screenplay. During filming Thompson would experience her own romantic epiphany, falling in love with co-star, Greg Wise; leaving then husband, Kenneth Branagh to remain at his side. The two would eventually marry in 2003. Initially, Columbia Pictures was apprehensive about Thompson’s screenwriting credit. Producer, Lindsay Doran, who had risen through the ranks at Mirage Pictures, plodded with her belief in Thompson’s ability, much bolstered with the Hollywood bigwigs after Thompson’s Oscar-winning turn in Howards End and subsequent triumph in The Remains of the Day (1993).
It should be pointed out Thompson’s revision of Jane Austen is not entirely faithful to the authoress’ original work; particularly her depictions of Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars. The contemporizing of certain character traits, the jettisoning of various tertiary characters and subplots (necessary for narrative concision) and the complete invention of various dramatic and comedic sequences throughout the movie went largely unnoticed by rudimentary fans of Austen’s novel. The revisions, of course, bothered the literary purists. But in point of fact, given the longevity of Hollywood’s verve to ‘improve’ upon greatness under the rubric of ‘artistic license’, Emma Thompson’s efforts herein have achieved the uncanny feat of bottling Austen’s purpose, wit and social etiquette without miring the production in a stilted series of moving tableaus. If anything, Sense and Sensibility is the rich benefactor of Thompson’s intuitive comprehension of its source material; delving deeply into Austen-land apparently without taking either herself or strict adherence to Austen too seriously. And yet, the production is quite seriously mounted to evoke both the period and Austen’s point of view without anchoring the audience to either for very long. On a relatively miniscule budget of $16 million, Ang Lee chose to photograph much of the action on locations indigenous to Austen’s own time and place; the British rural landscape virtually unchanged since the 18th century. In the final analysis, Sense and Sensibility achieves greatness not because it attempts to resuscitate or even champions the complete resurrection of Jane Austen beyond a sincere preservation of her spirit. To endeavor to do otherwise would have so easily embalmed the entire experience. Instead, the effect achieved by Thompson remains Austen-esque while undeniably absorbing: and the movie, a true wonderment to behold.
For some years, a bare bones Blu-ray of Sense and Sensibility only exited in the U.K. via Sony Home Entertainment in a region free disc capable of being played anywhere in the world. Now, Twilight Time has reissued this same transfer in North America; Region A locked and with a host of welcomed extra features; most previously available only on its Region One DVD release. Sense and Sensibility’s hi-def master is a few years old, but showing very little sign that time and technology has advanced in the interim. The two rival transfers are virtually identical; richly saturated with bold colors, solidly recreated flesh tones, very strong contrast levels and a minute twinge of slight edge enhancement ported over the Atlantic – more noticeable in the credits than anywhere else. Fine detail is sumptuously realized, as is a smattering of film grain. Bottom line: this presentation will surely not disappoint. The DTS 5.1 audio is as impressive with dialogue sounding natural and Patrick Doyle’s score given its due. Extras include several featurettes that, put together, collectively play out as a ‘making of’ documentary – albeit one that is truncated and rather heavy-handedly distilled. Twilight Time’s additional contributions, include an isolated music track – greatly welcomed and sounding superb – also, Emma Thompson’s Golden Globe acceptance speech in which she thanks everyone who had a hand in making the picture in true Austen-esque style. Hell of a speech, if you ask me. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)