In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen.
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant
Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Emma Thompson is a force of nature, y'all. After over a decade of acting (and the occasional dabbling in TV writing) she undertook her first feature film screenplay, an adaptation of a literary giant. Although the Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility was part of the banner year that brought Jane Austen into the rabid mainstream popularity that she still enjoys today (also in 1995, the culture was buffeted by BBC's Pride and Prejudice miniseries and Amy Heckerling's Clueless), this was still a daunting undertaking.
She didn't even break a sweat, assembling a cast of future A-list superstars to breathe life into what still stands strong as one of the best Austen adaptations to date. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Let's jump back to the early 1800's for a moment, shall we?
In Sense and Sensibility, rich sisters Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet, two years before Titanic would change her life forever) live with their parents and kid sister. Unfortunately, their father passes away before either of them marry, leaving them penniless (his entire estate went to their half-brother, whose avaricious wife talks him out of supporting them). They move to a small cottage out in the country (with three bedrooms and two servants, the sheer poverty is overwhelming), where they have a variety of romantic adventures in which Elinor leads with her logic and Marianne dashes forward full force with her heart.
The men in their lives are awkward but charming brother-in-law (this is not the creepiest intra-family romance in the Austen universe, believe me) Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), the dashing but licentious John Willoughby (Greg Wise), and the older but devoted Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), who Marianne turns her nose up at without a second thought.
I mean, wouldn't you ignore Alan Rickman for the raw sensual power of that hat?
As we learned from this year's Oscars, where Parasite won Best Picture, sometimes the Academy gets it right. And they certainly did when they awarded Emma Thompson for Best Adapted Screenplay. The whole point of this project is weighing the way different people adapt Austen's work, and as Thompson's mighty act of rendering the original 1811 novel as a feature film is beyond compare.
To start off, she does what I have been begging these screen adaptations to do from the very beginning, retaining the acidic sarcasm of Austen's original texts. The Austen novels have always been funny in a hyper-modern snarky way; you just have to crack open the period dialogue to get to that candy center. And this is an extraordinarily funny film, especially given the standards of your average Hollywood period piece costume drama. MVP goes to Imelda Staunton as a chatty, ditzy woman with a husband who visibly despises spending time with her, but the entire cast is expert at delivering Thompson's wickedly sharp dialogue, which sometimes directly draws out the best passages from the novel, and largely synthesizes the source text's themes and moods into new delicious combinations.
The reason the humor works especially well is because Thompson has done the legwork of making the period and the characters within it come to life, humanizing conflicts and interactions that might normally seem distant and outdated to a modern audience member. One trick I especially appreciate her using is the way she overlaps dialogue. Even in scenes when our main characters aren't speaking, there is boisterous conversation floating in through windows or from other rooms, bringing the world to messy, vibrant life instead of embalming it in stuffy, fussy costumes and sets that seem hermetically sealed from the real world.
Also it helps that they cast at least one movie star-handsome romantic lead, something the previous BBC adaptations perpetually failed to do.
All you need to stand out among the crowd of these Austen adaptations is a sharp script and actors who know how to deliver the material, which Sense and Sensibility confidently provides (Thompson, especially when she gets her big Oscar-worthy monologue, is reliably terrific on top of everything else). Unfortunately, there is something that doesn't quite connect emotionally, at least for this reviewer.
It doesn't help that Sense and Sensibility is mostly about the relationship between two sisters, and their interactions as they long for men from afar. Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman are necessarily forced offscreen for longer than one might like if we're meant to feel heaving romantic paroxysms. And while both Thompson and Winslet are delivering the material well, it's challenging to buy their sisterly relationship when the former is visibly 16 years older than the latter. While this casting choice at least visually highlights the way that Elinor is more capable and mature than her younger sister, it leaves a gaping crack in the foundation of the relationship that is meant to propel the emotional core of the movie.
And frankly, of Ang Lee's mainstream, well-regarded works, this is the entry in which I find the least to be impressed with. While Thompson does all the legwork in bringing the characters to life, I find that Lee and his creative vision gets lost in the period detail rather than bringing the camera to life for more than a couple sweeping vistas.
But all that said, Sense and Sensibility is a terrific accomplishment that stands head and shoulders above most of the material I've covered in this marathon, especially among the adaptations that are actually set in the period. It was rightfully nominated for Best Picture, and while it should have lost to Babe, it shouldn't have lost to Braveheart, and we would all do well to remember that.
TL;DR: Sense and Sensibility is an adaptation that does great wonders in bringing Austen's humor and characters to life, even if it doesn't do the same with her passion.
Word Count: 1005
Other Films Based on Sense and Sensibility
Sense and Sensibility (Lee, 1995)
From Prada to Nada (Gracia, 2011)
Sense, Sensibility, and Snowmen (Winning, 2019)