Emma Thompson both wrote and stars in this latter-day Jane Austen adaptation, blessed with fine locations and costumes, a congenial cast and attentive direction by Ang Lee. Kate Winslet consolidates her newfound stardom as a second Austen husband-seeker, lost in a maze of family intrigues and betrayals. But none are so severe as to prevent faith, hope and charity from prevailing in the end.
Sense and Sensibility
1995 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 136 min. / Ship Date November 10, 2015 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Gemma Jones, Tom Wilkinson, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Greg Wise, Lucy Steele, Harriet Walter, Imelda Staunton, Emilie François, Robert Hardy, Hugh Laurie.
Cinematography Michael Coulter
Original Music Patrick Doyle
Written by Emma Thompson from the book by Jane Austen
Produced by Lindsay Doran
Directed by Ang Lee
Jane Austen is certainly back in the chips these days, what with renewed interest in her books and interesting adaptations and ‘literary extensions.’ The P.D. James mystery thriller Death Comes to Pemberley was filmed as a three part mini-series, and Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is due out next year as a feature film.
But, steering back to the Austen mainstream, in 1995 we were given a handsome, thoughtful adaptation of Sense and Sensibility by actress Emma Thompson. She earned an Oscar for that work plus an acting nomination. The picture also attracted nominations for cinematography, costumes, and music, and for its producer Lindsay Doran and co-star Kate Winslet. Thompson was already established as a fine screen actress in the James Ivory films Howards End and The Remains of the Day. If I’m not mistaken, Kate Winslet was still mainly known as one of the dizzy, murderous Australian teens in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. This version of Sense and Sensibility earns high marks for achievement.
With the death of Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), the female Dashwoods of Norland Hall take a steep downward turn in English society. Encouraged by his venal wife Fanny (Harriet Walter), son and heir John Dashwood (James Fleet) puts Elinor, Marianne, Margaret and their mother (Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Gemma Jones & Emilie François) on a tiny pension, and evicts them from the family home. They accept the charity of their relatives the Middletons of Devonshire. As daughters without dowries, Elinor and Marianne lack the best prospects for marriage, but Marianne soon attracts two suitors, the reserved Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) and the dashing John Willoughby (Greg Wise). Elinor and aspiring vicar Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) form an affectionate bond, a relationship curtailed by Fanny’s vindictive machinations. Elinor gives up entirely when a new arrival, Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs), tells her in secret that she and Edward have been engaged for five years. Then Marianne’s relationship with John Willoughby collapses in scandal and mystery, which throws the girl into an emotional depression. Elinor is willing to accept what comes, but the social snubs and snobberies amount to a steady diet of humiliations.
Yes, Austen’s formula for brilliant popular literature can’t be beat. Now as in 1813, romance and intrigue across social and economic barriers is of universal interest. Males inherit property and females do not, which reduces a family from respectable status to something akin to cultured beggars. The Dashwoods are at the social mercy of boorish relatives, some of which mean well, and others that act out of selfish malice. Money is used to assert a social dominance, and also to force people to one’s will. Austen places her characters on the moral incline depending on what guides their lives. Fanny doesn’t care who suffers, she just wants to control her husband’s money. John Willoughby isn’t about to marry for love and be required to work for a living. Edward Ferrars isn’t interested in money, but he needs a sponsor to have a parish of his own. Elinor and Marianne just want to find men they like, and maintain some level of respectability.
Quite beautiful yet no man-killer, Emma Thompson is an ideal Austen heroine, the one who must endure various social slights and injuries, and prove her worth by staying civil and ladylike. This is 1813, after all, and women are supposed to wait, not assert themselves. Austen’s books give their readers hope that by emulating the virtuous Elinor, they’ll be happy too. Except that, at least in her top two novels, Austen confects marvelously felicitous endings that are just too good for real life. This is called giving the reader what they want. While they’re waiting, they have some great books to read.
The novelty of character over mere beauty also gives us Kate Winslet, who would seem born to portray women from period fiction. Her Marianne throws herself far too boldly at John Willoughby, which can only lead to disaster; then she goes through a sickness that helps to externalize her emotional distress. Of course, Marianne’s recovery creates an opening for Colonel Brandon into her good graces. And imagine that, the quiet Brandon reveals a passionate interest in poetry that appeals greatly to Marianne. Although presented as disadvantaged, the Dashwood women seemingly have eligible dreamboats on tap; it’s only a matter of figuring out which is the rotten egg and which of the unassertive introverts hides a heart of gold. Does Austen customize her men for female wish fulfillment? Not one of these admiring swains is a fat-gutted beer drinker who tracks mud in the house or lets the hounds eat off the dinner table. As if to compensate, Austen throws in one male relative who’s always sarcastic and bored, and openly contemptuous of his pea-brained, loud-mouthed wife. He doesn’t even have an interest in children. I love that guy.
Thompson’s adaptation captures the essence of most of the characters, and the performance-enhancing direction of Ang Lee (Ride with the Devil) works out the delicate balance necessary for our understanding of the social strait-jacket in which these people function. The various biddies and gossips that plague the Dashwoods aren’t in for comedy relief, but are more like real relatives we all must endure, the kind of people that are hilarious only if they’re somebody else’s relatives. And the truth be told, nobody can make the story’s coincidences, mistaken assumptions and near miraculous serendipities seem like anything but what they are. Thompson and Lee instead make the characters just as surprised as they ought to be.
The obligatory ‘happy faces and wedding cakes’ finish deals out justice in proper measure to all concerned. Thompson does opt to end on a note of sympathy for John Willoughby, whose choice will bar him from the story’s definition of True Happiness. This seems a tad forced, as we’ve no indication that Willoughby is anything but a shallow and selfish cad. Was he more sympathetic in the book? I’ll bet that Ms. Austen was reacting to the average romance novel of her time, where the most handsome and dashing stud in the county is also a true-blue Prince Charming. Don’t trust men with long sideburns.
I’m sure the costumes are accurate, but the dresses in Austen novels are from a period with those high Empire waistlines ( I think that’s the right term ) that make every woman look like a shapeless bag. I guess they eventually compensated with drastic cleavage in an effort to give men something to look at. According to the IMDB the costumes seen in this movie were all re-used in, or repurposed from, four or five other period movies of the day. How does one get an Oscar nomination for borrowed costumes, though? The movie may have been inexpensive — not too many big party scenes — but we see some pretty impressive locations. Those green hills and trees roll on forever.
Alan Rickman erases his Die Hard nastiness to play the cautious, sensitive Colonel, while Hugh Grant is the kind of hesitant, shy sweetheart that needs a woman like Elinor to draw out his personality. Greg Wise mainly looks like a ladykiller’s ladykiller. The peripheral casting is even better than the good average in English movies — Gemma Jones (Ken Russell’s The Devils), Harriet Walter (The Good Father), Robert Hardy (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake), Imogen Stubbs (Nanou), Richard Lumsden, Hugh Laurie (Tomorrowland).
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Sense and Sensibility maintains the label’s high level of quality. By choosing only those titles with the best available transfers, TT discs almost never disappoint. Sense and Sensibility always looked good but this edition is immaculate. In HD one can appreciate the details in the costumes, and wonder about the policy of makeup for these early 19th-century women. They have great complexions and pink cheeks and look entirely natural. How much makeup are the actresses wearing?
The days of bare bones Twilight Time releases appear to be over. The generous extras from the earlier DVD have been ported across. Writer-actor Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran share a track, with Ang Lee and another producer on the other. The somewhat promotional-oriented featurettes cover the Jane Austen craze, the costumes, the director and the production. The deleted scenes include the very flat Elinor-Edward kiss that was wisely discarded. An expected high quality Isolated Score Track is present. This time around Julie Kirgo’s liner notes are really helpful to those of us with rather shallow knowledge of Jane Austen. She also has the inside story on how this movie came to be made under the banner of Sidney Pollack’s production company. Finally, Kirgo gives us a deeper appreciation of Ms. Thompson’s talent — the story’s crisscrossing relationships all make intelligent sense, in depth.
Twilight Time’s website makes it easier to understand what one is getting. The specs for each disc are accurate, which is more than can be said for the listings at Amazon.com. I was tickled by the ‘You Might Also Like’ recommendation on the bottom of the page for Sense and Sensibility: ‘You Might Also Like … Scream and Scream Again!‘
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sense and Sensibility
Supplements: Isolated Score Track; 2 commentaries: actress Emma Thompson + producer Lindsay Doran, director Ang Lee + co-producer James Schamus; featurettes / Adapting Austen, Elegance & Simplicity: The Wardrobe of Sense and Sensibility, Locating the World of Sense and Sensibility, A Sense of Character, A Very Quiet Man Deleted Scenes / Emma Thompson’s Golden Globe Acceptance Speech / Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 30, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson