Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility was a wonderful debut, in 1811, from the author who gave us Pride and Prejudice. Here we follow the adventures of the Dashwood sisters as they find love in an class-conscious Regency England. The Dashwoods, impoverished when their father dies, are forced to live in a small house in the country on 500 pounds a year. With such unfortunate prospects as those, it will be difficult for the elder two, Elinor and Marianne, to find good marriage prospects. Marianne finds herself falling in love with the dashing Willoughby, who ends up being not all that he appears. Elinor, the more sensible of the two, falls for Edward Ferras, a match that seems much more suitable. But again, things are not what they seem, in this delicious tale of love. The young women must use their sense to see what is really there, and their sensibility to see what will be (unfortunately, Marianne uses neither, much to the detriment of the family). Colonel Brandon is the unassuming, unlikely hero who falls in love with Marianne and saves her from death.
More than simple romances, Jane Austen's novels are delicately constructed pieces of social commentary, written from her rural Hampshire's perspective. Mostly confined to life in her father's parish, she was nevertheless well aware of early 19th century England's society at large, and fiercely critical of the loss of morals and decorum she saw in its pre-industrial emergent city life. Moreover, experience and observation had made her acutely aware of the corsets forced onto women in fashion terms as much as by social norms, confining them to inactivity and complete dependency on their families' and their (future) husbands' money. And among this movie's greatest strengths is the manner in which it maintains that underlying theme of Austen's writing and brings it to a contemporary audience's attention. "You talk about feeling idle and useless: imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever," Elinor Dashwood tells her almost-suitor Edward Ferrars, and when he replies that "our circumstances are therefore precisely the same," she corrects him: "Except that you will inherit your fortune - we cannot even earn ours." Rescuing much from the first draft dramatization of Austen's novel and amplifying where necessary, Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee ("who most inexplicably seems to understand me better than I understand myself," Thompson said in her mock-Austen Golden Globe speech) produced a movie scrupulously faithful to what is known about Austen's world and at the same time incredibly modern, thus emphasizing the novel's timeless quality. Paintings were consulted for the movie's production design, and indeed, almost every camera frame - both landscapes and interiors - has the feeling of a picture by a period painter. Thompson cleverly uses poetry where the novel does not contain dialogue; and again, she does so in a manner entirely faithful to Austen's subtleties - most prominently in the joint recital of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 by Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby , where an ever so slight inaccuracy in his rendition of a sonnet he claims to love foreshadows his lacking sincerity.
Mrs. Dashwood: Why so grave? You disapprove her choice?
Marianne: By no means. Edward is very amiable.
Mrs. Dashwood: Amiable? But?
Marianne: There is something wanting. He's too sedate. His reading last night...
Mrs. Dashwood: Elinor has not your feelings. His reserve suits her.
Marianne: Can he love her? Can the soul be really be satisfied with such polite affections? To love is to burn - to be on fire, like Juliet or Guinevere or Heloise...
Mrs. Dashwood: They made rather pathetic ends, dear.
Marianne: Pathetic? To die for love? How can you say so? What could be more glorious?
Mrs. Dashwood: I think that would be taking your romantic sensibilities a little far.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are sisters with opposite temperaments. Elinor, the elder daughter, and represents the "sense" (Think reason) of the title. Marianne is younger and represents "sensibility" (Think emotion). Elinor and Marianne are the daughters of Mr. Dashwood by his second wife. They also have a younger sister, Margaret, and an older half-brother named John. When their father dies, the family estate passes to John and the Dashwood women are left impoverished. Fortunately, a distant relative offers to rent the women a cottage on his property. The novel follows the Dashwood sisters to their new home, where they experience both romance and heartbreak. The contrast between the sisters' characters is eventually resolved as they each find love and lasting happiness. Yes, this is a romance, and through the hardships and heartbreak, true love and a happy ending will find their way for both the sister who is all sense and the one who is all sensibility.
Colonel Brandon: Your sister seems very happy.
Elinor Dashwood: Yes. Marianne does not approve of hiding her emotions. In fact, her romantic prejudices have the unfortunate tendency to set propriety at naught.
Colonel Brandon: She is wholly unspoilt.
Elinor Dashwood: Rather too unspoilt, in my view. The sooner she becomes acquainted with the ways of the world, the better.
Colonel Brandon: I knew a lady very like your sister - the same impulsive sweetness of temper - who was forced into, as you put it, a better acquaintance with the world. The result was only ruination and despair. Do not desire it, Miss Dashwood.
Emma Thompson's adaptation of Jane Austen's novel and Ang Lee's direction of it prove to be a stunning and talented combination. This story about the complexities of love, society, and family won my heart in the first few minutes with its excellent acting, smart dialogue, and lush period setting. The movie focuses primarily on the two oldest sisters of the Dashwood family - Elinor (Emma Thompson) and her younger sister Marianne (Kate Winslet.) Elinor is practical and independent-minded, caught between her societal position as a woman and what she wants for herself. In contrast, Marianne is impetuous, artistic, passionate; she pursues her emotions as though nothing else matters. When both sisters fall in love with different men, they react very differently to the awakening of their affections.
The fact that the "sense and sensibility" of the title had a most definate 19th century feel, the story itself remains timeless. A very human and compelling story with a splendid cast and wise and witty script.
Marianne: Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honour and duty. Elinor, where is your heart? Elinor Dashwood: What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering. For weeks, Marianne, I've had this pressing on me without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature. It was forced on me by the very person whose prior claims ruined all my hope. I have endured her exultation again and again whilst knowing myself to be divided from Edward forever. Believe me, Marianne, had I not been bound to silence I could have provided proof enough of a broken heart, even for you.
The acting in this film is spectacular. Emma Thompson becomes Elinor so thoroughly that it's difficult to imagine another actress tackling this role. As the romantic Marianne, Kate Winslet is charmingly breathless; she captures the essence of her character with seemingly no effort. Hugh Grant is awkwardly sincere as Edward, and the normally sinister Alan Rickman portrays, with heartbreaking honesty, the love-struck Colonel. To bring all this talent together, Ang Lee provides nuanced direction that captures both the beauty and the humanity of Austen's novel.
Edward: My heart is, and always will be, yours.
A very fine film indeed and most highly recommended.
2 chins up!