Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Sense & Sensibility: A Look Back

I’ve always felt that Ang Lee, despite not being my favourite director, is especially diverse. Looking at his filmography, despite it not being abundant the different styles that he has experimented are quite thrilling. Sense & Sensibility is my favourite of his films, in fact it is my favourite of 1995. I am unsurprised that it won the poll for Best Period. And I love it very much indeed. Here is a look at my 20th favourite film Sense & Sensibility.

Directed by Ang Lee, the story was inspired by Jane Austen’s popular novel and it tells the tale of the Dashwood women, who upon their father’s death lose their home to their half brother, since of course in those days land does not past from father to daughter [or wife] but to son. Thus begins a series of interesting, dramatic, sometimes hilarious, always touching events for the Dashwood sisters and their mother. In lieu of their mother’s somewhat poor spirits, the efficient Elinor [Emma Thompson] has become a surrogate head of the home. She is sense. Her younger sister – Marianne [Kate Winslet] – is an emotional young lady, prone to romantic and dramatic fits. She is sensibility. The youngest sister Margaret, [alas no alliterative adjective for her] is often, little else than an enchanted observer in the machinations of her older sisters.

Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson are quite charming as a sisterly duo. They are not as a incessantly playful and confiding as the Bennett sisters [Pride & Prejudice], but the filial love is obvious. As with any Jane Austen novel, the romantic escapades of the women are at the heart of it. The more reticent Elinor catches the eye of her sister-in-law’s brother Edward Ferrars. But before anything can come of the union the Dashwood women are carted off to the country to a somewhat derelict cottage. Here they come into contact with their cousin Sir John Middleton and his companion Mrs Jennings, played to delightful perfection by Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs.

Because Elinor is so sensible she rarely thinks of Edward, even as Sir John constantly berate her as to whether or not she has left a gentleman behind in the city. Their annoyance leads Marianne to distract them leading to one of the more popular scenes from the film as Marianne sits solemnly at a piano and sings a beautiful solo that enthrals a newcomer to the area, Colonel Brandon [a fine performance by Alan Rickman]. The affection that Brandon feels for Marianne is perhaps not lost on most, but because Marianne is full of sensibility – most emotional she falls in love with Willoughby a charming young gentleman who so romantically rescues her in the rain one day. Played wonderfully by Greg Wise this is arguably the best male performance in the film. But as with Jane Austen, what seem too good to be true usually is, and Willoughby is no exception. Willoughby leaves suddenly one day leaving Marianne excessively distraught.

The introduction of a young lady, Ms. Steele causes Marianne much distress as a trip to the city causes for Marianne. But that enough synopsising for you. And if you don’t know the unravelling of the story, you should be ashamed. Go and get it NOW.

Kate Winslet gives a standout performance as Marianne Dashwood. I am tempted to say that it is the greatest of her careeer, but I’m not sure. Nevertheless, it is an astonishingly good performance. At nineteen Kate earned an Oscar nomination and won a SAG for her performance, ultimately losing to Mira Sorvino. As good an actress as she is, I’ve always found Kate delightful when she embraces her English roots and Marianne [like any Jane Austen heroine] is thoroughly English. Marianne is playful, passionate, petulant, romantic and much more. Kate is absolutely perfect as this energetic young lady. But Emma is no wallflower. Her Elinor is not as showy but Emma is just as good playing her role. There is a scene towards the climax when Elinor reveals to Marianne who Ms. Steele really is. Marianne is shocked and questions how Elinor can remain so composed – cold even. Elinor lashes out in anger and frustration at her sister’s selfishness. It is the showiest part of her performance and she does it wonderfully. Quite ironic actually since her Oscar winning performance in Howards End was similarly subdued and only had one big actressy scene. Still, both performances are wonderful. While Kate gets to be loud and aggressive, Emma has those sad moments when you know she’s just bursting to let it all out – but she’s too sensible for that.
Sense & Sensibility for all it’s wonder is not without its fault. The most obvious are the age of the main characters. In the film the differences in Marianne and Elinor’s temperaments seems to be instigated more by their age than anything else. Despite her youthful performance and the age defying makeup we may still infer that Elinor is about 10 years older than her sister. This negates the whole point of Austen’s title. Marianne and Elinor are different in temperaments, their ages are of no consequence or cause as we unconsciously deduce from the film. In addition, for some reason I cannot place, the film suffers in the latter part when the character of Edward Ferrars is reintroduced to the narrative. Hugh Grant is certainly not a bad actor, at least not usually. But I found him to be excessively inadequate in this role. And seeing that Elinor should be the heart and soul of the film it seems unfortunate that her romantic relationship should be handled so shoddily.

The triangle of Willoughby, Brandon and Marianne is handled most beautifully, though become the more interesting story line as time goes on. Surprisingly the relationship between Colonel Brandon and Marianne seems quite believable and even pleasant. Emma Thompson makes Willoughby less of a cad than he is portrayed in the novel so we feel quite a bit of sympathy for him. But when Colonel Brandon takes Marianne’s in his arms in that beautiful rain scene it’s so sweet, so tender and so…right. We have no doubt; this is whom Marianne should be with.

I could probably wax nostalgic about Sense & Sensibility for days, but I’m sure I’m already boring you with my histrionics, so I’ll cease. But let me just say, that despite its faults and any inaccuracies I do love this film, obviously. And even if you'll never love it, you should go see it. It's a great film.


Tommy Salami said...

My gal is an Austenite, I will make sure to watch this one. I had to watch the 5 hour Pride & Prejudice miniseries- excellent, if a slog for Austen neophytes- but a movie length endeavor is more my speed. And Ang Lee is great at family dynamics.

Anonymous said...

Hello dude!

It is my first time here. I just wanted to say hi!