Sense and Sensibility

by Cathleen Myers

We went into Lindsay Doran’s film version of Sense and Sensibility with some serious reservations: that Emma Thompson could not be convincing as the 19-year-old Eleanor Dashwood (to be frank, she is closer in age to Eleanor’s thirty-something mother); that Hugh Grant was a very odd choice for the shy, reserved Edward Ferrars: that Jane Austen’s novels are too ironically witty to work as films and that this is too difficult a novel for a novice screenwriter like Ms. Thompson to tackle....

Five minutes into Sense and Sensibility, all our initial reservations melted away.

This is a wonderful film - easily the most moving and dramatic screen adaptation of a Jane Austen novel to date. Emma Thompson’s script captures much of the wit and poignancy of the original novel - no small feat - and she herself is Eleanor as we have always visualized her: quietly beautiful, the reserved exterior concealing the loving, emotional core of her true self (which, as the "rock" of the family, she dares not show).

The film’s press releases made much of its use of period detail and local color - even the use of "period sheep" in the fields. The living history crowd will appreciate all of this, including the very precise use of period language and grammar and the meticulous use of proper forms of address (Even the young people almost invariably address each other as "Mr.," "Mrs.," and "Miss"). Surprisingly, the costumes are not always convincing: Yes, many of the costumes are beautiful and show attention to period detail. But why aren’t the Dashwood girls in full mourning after their father’s death? And, surely, the romantic-minded Mrs. Dashwood would not discard her widow’s weeds so soon. And why do we see so little white muslin in an age when white is the fashion (Eleanor appears again and again in an improbable blue velvet gown, while one of Marianne’s is an equally unlikely purple print)? The less said about the country dance scene, the better, and the archaic allemande would not have been danced at a fashionable London Regency party.

But these are trivial quibbles. The film’s single major failure is its characterization of the lovers Marianne and Willoughby. In Jane Austen’s novel, Marianne is beautifully drawn, with all her faults, and Willoughby is an appealing if unprincipled rake. Neither character works well on screen. That Willoughby is a cad and a bounder is obvious almost from the first (though his Gothic first entrance - in a caped coat, on horseback, in a storm - is hilariously appropriate); perhaps the role would have been more convincing and sympathetic with a younger actor: if ever a part had ‘young hunk’ written all over it, it’s Willoughby. Jane Austen’s Marianne is spoiled and self-indulgent in her sensibility (We would say "sensitivity") but always enchanting. In the film, Marianne is arrogant, selfish and clueless. Perhaps because the script goes out of its way to give the youngest sister Margaret a character, it skimps on Marianne. Thirteen year old Margaret, a very minor character in the novel, is such an appealing, bookish tomboy in the film that one wonders why her sisters’ lovers don’t simply wait for her to grow up.

Another minor character, Hugh Laurie as Mr. Palmer, simply steals every scene he’s in. As the cynical young politician tied to an idiot wife, Laurie is hilariously droll but shows an unexpected sympathetic side of the character hinted at in Austen’s text. The country characters - jovial Sir John, vulgar but warm-hearted Mrs. Jennings and efficient manservant John all seem true to life . And, yes, both Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon) give nicely restrained performances, subtly suggesting the passion beneath the correct manners.

All criticism aside, this is a deeply moving, often hilariously funny, and unabashedly romantic film. And its best scenes are, predictably, the ones straight out of Jane Austen. Janeites will honor Ms. Thompson’s trust in Jane Austen’s ear for dialogue.

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