Monday, April 29, 2013

Off Book: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Greg Wise

While I know very well that this film is not in 1001 Movies, I love it so dang much that I'm going to go right ahead and review it anyway.  Because it's awesome and it's one of my go-to comfort films.  I've seen it more times than I can count, and I will continue to watch it over and over and over again in the future.

Throwing fuel on the fire of the Jane Austen craze that overtook Hollywood in the mid-nineties is this truly impeccable adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.  I adore Austen, and I adore Austen movies and miniseries, but after a recent rewatch of nearly every Austen film in my library (an undertaking that took several days), I realized just how far above the rest this particular film was.  It has a beauty, a heart, and a lyricism that others lack.  Nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in its year, it was beaten by Braveheart, a passable but forgettable epic.  Sense and Sensibility, on the other hand, has only grown more beloved over time, at least in the circles I run in.

The classic story focuses on Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Winslet) Dashwood, sisters who must relocate to a simple country cottage after their father’s death.  Elinor is sensible and practical, pragmatic in everything, whereas Marianne is a hopeless romantic, determined to fall dreadfully in love.  For Elinor, the shy and composed Edward Ferrars (Grant) catches her eye, while Marianne falls for the dashing and impetuous Mr. Willoughby (Wise), much to the chagrin of Colonel Brandon (Rickman), who is desperately in love with her.  Money and status and scandal put up roadblocks, but our heroines are pure of heart, and true love triumphs in the end.

Ang Lee’s gorgeous camerawork combined with Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation bring this 200-year-old tale to life in a vivid, brilliant manner.  Ang Lee paints the film in lush, supple golds and greens, casting his heroines in wonderfully warm candlelight and golden sunsets.  The countryside looks as if it came out of a painting, with rolling green pastures and hills, blue ponds, and low-hanging willows.  When peril begins to loom for our heroines and tragedy seems apt to take over, the color palette changes to a cold, steely blue, with lots of rain and cloud and fog, signifying the change in overall tone.  But Lee brings us back to the warm tones of the opening of the film for its closure, after danger is averted, ending with such a beautiful shot of a country wedding, so golden in its happiness, that it cannot help but bring a smile to the face.

Alan Rickman has made a career of playing bad guys.  His looks, his accent, his basso profundo voice all lend themselves to a villain.  How refreshing that he is not one here.  His Colonel Brandon grows increasingly heartsick, increasingly in love with Marianne, but it is his restraint, his sad acceptance of the fact that she loves another, that makes him the most interesting male character in the story.  Ferrars is cute but a bit boring, more interesting in his reflection through Elinor than in himself (perhaps a comment on how far Hugh Grant is in over his head in this film), and Willoughby is simply a plot device to confuse and mislead our heroines, but Brandon is real, Brandon is substantive.  His opening scene as he first hears Marianne is positively hypnotic, and as he falls in love with her in that moment, every single woman watching this film falls in love with him.  Who on earth wouldn’t want a man to look at her the way Brandon gazes longingly at Marianne?  When Marianne is taken ill, his quiet yet desperate plea with Elinor to “give me an occupation or else I shall run mad,” speaks volumes for his quiet love for her.  Thompson, in her screenplay, presents a truly satisfying relationship between Brandon and Elinor.  Elinor clearly understands that Brandon loves her sister but that her sister loves Willoughby, yet she has a feeling that her sister has chosen wrongly.  Elinor and Brandon have a bond, a friendship, that lends a depth to both characters.  Colonel Brandon is one of Austen’s purest, truest heroes, and Rickman gives him such heart, such life, such romanticism, that every time I watch this film, I fall more and more in love with him.

Kate Winslet roared onto the Hollywood scene with this role, which she filmed when she was only nineteen years old.  She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role, the first of her six (thus far) Oscar nominations (finally winning in 2009).  She is truly a whirlwind in the role; impetuous, carefree, strong-willed, and impulsive, heedless of society’s strictures on a lady’s behavior.  She is the highest high and the lowest low, flying back and forth between the two as only a teenager could.  Marianne’s ultimate growth is that she learns from her heartbreak, learns to temper her behavior.  She is not domesticated, per se, but after flying too close to the sun, she learns to balance herself, to learn more from her sister.  Winslet pulls off this transformation with utmost believability, and in the years following this film, she has proved, again and again, that she in undoubtedly one of our finest leading ladies of the time.

In contrast to headstrong Marianne, there MUST be a level-headed, careful Elinor, and Emma Thompson is the cautious heart of the film.  Personally, I am much more apt to sympathize with Elinor and her careful repression than Marianne’s recklessness.  I adore Thompson’s portrayal of Elinor, mostly because Thompson is very mindful to show us the cracks in Elinor’s well-studied façade of calm and tranquility at all the right moments.  They are subtle; a sharp intake of breath here, an uncertain word there, but they all combine to convince us that this is a woman very much in love, but disappointed in her love.  One of the most stunning scenes in the entire film, a scene which wrenches my heart every single time, is where Elinor reveals to Marianne that she has known she cannot be with Edward for months, keeping it a secret.  Thompson explodes in her heartbreak at her sister’s shallow condemnation of her lack of emotion.  To me, this scene personifies Elinor, and almost defines the film.

The plotline becomes very serious in the second half, as life looks increasingly bleak and sad for our heroines.  The intense drama is satisfactorily eased by light moments of humor, deftly placed to alleviate the encroaching darkness.  Hugh Laurie, a college chum of Emma Thompson’s, is positively scene-stealing as the bored and annoyed Mr. Palmer, a role that only has about a half-dozen lines, yet he makes the most of it.  His silly wife, played by Imelda Staunton, is a fool but lightens the mood as well, and her mother, the loud and unstoppable Mrs. Jennings, is worth a laugh every time she opens her mouth.  

At its heart, the relationship of the two sisters is paramount in this story and this film.  Elinor and Marianne may be opposites in terms of their personalities, but they love each other very much and would do anything for each other.  This is a romance, to be sure, but the romances of the film are nothing without the devoted sisters going through life at each other’s sides.  Having a sister myself (Meaghan, this one’s for you), I simply adore the sisters and how much they love each other.  This is an achingly beautiful film that plumbs the emotional depths of Austen.  Without sounding too saccharine, it makes my heart soar to watch this movie, and I find myself alternately moved to tears and smiles.  Because really, who isn’t smiling when Elinor bursts into tears of happiness when she realizes that Edward, feared lost to her forever, loves her after all?

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.


  1. Very good review. I have to admit that while I like this film, I would pick the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice as my favorite Austen movie. Thompson actually performed an uncredited rewrite on it, most prominently when Charlotte Lucas is telling Elizabeth why she is accepting a marriage proposal. I did a set of reviews of the P&P story. If you have not seen Lost in Austen, I highly recommend it. Here is my post with links to my reviews of that and the 2005 P&P:

    S&S was the first film that I saw Winslet in, and I agree that she immediately grabs your attention.

    There's a funny reference back to S&S in the commentary track for Love Actually. The director is commenting that Thompson and Rickman were paired together again in that movie. Hugh Grant asks when the two had worked together before. There's a pause and then the director tells him S&S and that he might want to watch it sometime. Grant makes an "I'm an idiot" noise when he realizes how stupid his question was.

    1. OMG, I'm totally going to have to check out that commentary track now. Hugh Grant... wow...

      I know that you pick the 2005 P&P as your favorite Austen adaptation, and it comes in second for me. I have some issues with the writing (BINGLEY WOULD NEVER SAY "ASS!!!") that keep it from the top spot, but it's VERY good.

      Thanks for the rec on Lost in Austen. I'll definitely have to check it out sometime; I've heard of it, I've just never gotten around to seeing it yet.

      For some reason, your comment got loaded as spam! What's up with THAT!

    2. It might have been the link I put in it, but that was hardly the first time I've left you a link I thought you might be interested in. Perhaps it was all the ampersands? (grasping at straws here...)

      I'm guessing that the 1995 version is your favorite P&P. You've definitely got to see Lost in Austen now.

    3. I don't know, blogger was just being weird I guess.

      See, when it comes to P&P, the 1995 and the 2005 version keep on battling it out in my brain. I really think it depends on my mood as to which I'd pick as my favorite traditional Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes I really love the pace of the 1995 miniseries, really getting to dig into the characters and watching Darcy slowly, oh so slowly fall in love with Elizabeth. Other times, I want the story faster, and then the 2005 film comes in. I really can't pick between them.

      BUT I must say, I definitely have a new modern P&P favorite that I TOTALLY recommend to you if you're in the mood - "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries." It's a web series that ran from April 2012 to March 2013 and it spaced all of P&P out into 100 episodes, each about 5 minutes long. It's a modern take on the story, so Lizzie Bennet is a grad student in media studies who starts a web diary as part of her thesis project, but because of the tough economy, she's still living with her parents. We meet her older sister Jane who works in fashion and her younger sister Lydia who loves to party. Her best friend, Charlotte Lu, works behind the camera but makes on-camera appearances. It is AWESOME AND AMAZING AND I GOT TOTALLY ADDICTED TO IT AND CANNOT RECOMMEND IT ENOUGH. The online fan following is rabid in its loyalty, and we had a countdown clock to what was dubbed "Dizzie Day" (the day that Darcy and Lizzie finally get together). Hearts were torn asunder when it eventually all came to an end.

      Anyway. LBD, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. It's AWESOME. And if I had to consider it alongside traditional P&Ps, I really don't know if I could pick anything over it. I haven't felt so crazy into a fandom since Harry Potter (the books), and that's saying something.

    4. Thanks for the recommendation. I watched the first five videos. The commericals before each an every one were annoying (on the official Youtube channel). Do you know of a spot where they are edited together into a single video?

      I ask because The Guild has done that. I mention The Guild because it was the first blockbuster web series and the presentation of this other series (i.e. jump cuts, intros, summaries), and the mannerisms of the woman playing Lizzie, are completely stolen, I mean influenced, by Felicia Day and The Guild. If you've never seen it, you can check out the first season here: (I'd turn off the trivia track if you decide you like it and watch the whole thing.)

    5. I have seen bits of The Guild (my husband dabbled in watching it because he really likes Felicia Day, whom he discovered after he become UTTERLY OBSESSED with Dr. Horrible) and I liked it, I just never got totally sucked in. Might have to give it another go, though.

      For LBD, I'd recommend starting here:

      Because LBD wasn't just videos. There are also in-character tweet conversations, tumblr posts, and some of the other characters start their own vlogs as well. The site above has everything, and if you go in order, you can see all of it, AND I never saw any youtube ads on the videos there. So... yeah.

      I haven't found a video that links multiple episodes together.

      LBD started a kickstarter to get the funding to put out the show on DVD. They wanted $60,000 and gave themselves a month to raise the funds. They raised $60,000 in 6 hours. Over the course of the month, they wound up with I think $480,000 pledged. Fandom = in favor of DVD production. Hell, I chipped in on that one - my first ever kickstarter.