And now for our second Austen film in a month. That’s kind of a record for this blog… 🙂
One of the nicest Jane Austen films in my opinion is the graceful and lovely Sense and Sensibility. This 1995 charmer won Emma Thompson an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as a Golden Globe in the same category. I have loved this movie since I first saw it in high school, and over twenty-five years later I still find it almost note-perfect.
Oh, and for those of us who come at it from a twenty-first century point of view, the movie is full of future Harry Potter alumni. It’s actually quicker to name the actors who weren’t in Harry Potter. We also get to see House stalwart Hugh Laurie as Mr. Palmer use his real accent for once, although he’s still a sourpuss. Anyway…
Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is on his deathbed, and he’s worried. He knows his estate will pass to his oldest son, John (James Fleet), but Mr. Dashwood’s second wife, Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and daughters Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Margaret (Myriam François, billed as Emilie François) will have very little to live on and no dowries. They won’t even be able to stay at their home because John and his wife, Fanny (Harriet Walker) will be moving in. With his dying breath, Mr. Dashwood makes John promise to help his stepmother and half-sisters.
Not everyone takes John’s deathbed promise seriously. Fanny, a vinegary, selfish woman, talks John out of giving the Dashwoods money, so these poor women will have to make do on five hundred pounds a year. The next thing for them is to find a suitable house and move out. It takes some doing, but the Dashwoods finally rent a cottage in Dover on the estate of Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy), who lives with his widowed mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs). The rent is low and they have an automatic set of new friends, since Sir John and Mrs. Jennings wouldn’t dream of their neighbors being lonely.
Sense and Sensibility‘s main thread is, of course, the relationship between the two oldest sisters. Elinor is quiet and sensible. Marianne is dramatic, emotional, and vivacious. While they love each other, each thinks the other could use toning down or toning up, and this carries over into their taste in men. Marianne is enamored with Mr. Willoughby (Greg Wise), a romantic, dashing suitor who carries a pocket-sized volume of Shakespearean sonnets with him. He saves Marianne after she sprains her ankle following a tumble down a hill, and for a while seems to be madly in love with her. He even asks to talk to Marianne alone. However, on the day of the apparent proposal, Willoughby takes his leave in an abrupt and mysterious fashion, leaving Marianne heartbroken.
Waiting in the wings is the dependable, gallant Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) who steps aside when he thinks Marianne is taken. Like any gentleman, though, he continues to look out for the Dashwoods. Brandon and Willoughby despise each other, but it has nothing to do with Marianne.
Meanwhile, Elinor is in love with Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), a reserved, amiable fellow who wants to be a minister. Edward and Elinor enjoy being around each other, but they’re more reiticent than Marianne and Willoughby in declaring themselves. Even though Marianne finds Edward boring, especially after he gives a very flat reading of a Cowper poem, she tolerates him for Elinor’s sake.
Like Willoughby, Edward is called away suddenly, although less mysteriously, to see his mother in London. The four Dashwood women count on him to come visit them at their new cottage, but he’s a little slow. In the meantime, Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs), a visitor to Sir John and Mrs. Jennings’ house has a bombshell to drop on Elinor: She and Edward have been engaged on the sly for five years. Ouch. By way of pouring salt on the wound, Lucy swears Elinor to secrecy.
There’s so much I love about Sense and Sensibility. The music is awesome, especially “My Father’s Favorite“, which my husband and I used for the processional music at our wedding. Plus, what’s not immediately obvious is how seamlessly the Patrick Doyle score blends modern sounds with art music without sounding contrived. Two songs Marianne sings at the beginning and the end of the film were both written by Doyle, except that the lyrics are of the Jane Austen period. One of them, “The Dreame,” is taken from a Ben Jonson poem. I have never been able to find out if Kate Winslet did her own singing, but if not, her voice double is pretty darned convincing.
The film is, as John Huston once said, cast correctly. Granted, Emma Thompson was thirty-five when she played the nineteen-year old Elinor, but she comes across as just youthful enough. Kate Winslet is an exuberant Marianne, volatile of mood, but passionate in everything she does. Gemma Jones is no stranger to playing mothers, including Mrs. Jones in another Austen turn, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and her Mrs. Dashwood is an elegant and practical woman. She’s a nice contrast to the busybody Mrs. Jennings and her rather shrill daughter, Mrs. Palmer (Imelda Staunton), who are goodhearted but best in small doses.
Only one member of the cast appears out of place. Hugh Grant looks so uncomfortable in Sense and Sensibility, and not just because his character is a bit of a heel. The whole time he wears a pained expression and walks around verrrry slowly as if he’s moving underwater. And he mumbles with varying degrees of intelligibility as if he’s afraid of getting smacked. I think this movie is the reason I’m not much of a fan of Hugh Grant. He’s not terrible, but his discomfort here is palpable.
The one other thing I would say about this movie is that the pacing can be choppy. Some scenes last a few seconds with maybe a line or two, and then it’s on to the next story point. Zoom, zoom, zoom. I don’t know if the film was written this way or if editing is the cause, but parts of it have a blink-and-miss-it feel. Call me crazy, but Jane Austen stories should move a wee bit slower.
To be fair, though, Austen’s orignal Sense and Sensibility is a tightly-packed, complicated story with lots of character development, and Thompson’s take really does it justice, full of witty, well-placed dialogue, which gets the main ideas across very effectively. Some have interpreted this adaptation as being less flattering to Elinor because they think it implies she’s the only one who needs to change, but I disagree. Both sisters acknowledge they have faults they need to overcome and admire each other for having the qualities they each lack, so there’s a good balance. This was by design; Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee set out to tell a good story above all else and the finished product works beautifully.
For more of the Unhappy Valentines Blogathon, please see Tiffany and Rebekah at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. Thanks for hosting this, ladies! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you on Tuesday for another Reading Rarity…
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