This glorious romance of mores and manners, set during England's Regency Period, is very faithful to Jane Austen's brilliant novel. The film vividly brings the novel, with all its characters, to life. The plot focuses on two of the three Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, and their extremely different temperaments. Emma Thompson wrote this wonderful screenplay and earned an Academy Award for her efforts. She added pizzazz to the film, with an extra dash of drama, some humor, splendid panoramic views and a fabulous ball scene.
A lovely, young Kate Winslet plays Marianne Dashwood to perfection. Marianne is a passionate young woman, with a definite inclination toward the humanities: art, music and literature. Her heart rules her head, more often than not, and she has a very spontaneous nature. Emma Thompson gives a strong performance as Elinor Dashwood, the older of the two sisters. She has a more practical, sensible temperament. While Elinor appreciates the music and literature that her sibling so passionately loves, she definitely thinks things through before making decisions, or taking action, and keeps her personal feelings to herself. She feels tremendous responsibility for her family's well-being. Ms. Thompson gives Elinor a wicked, dry sense of humor, and her character adds much wit to the dialogue. Marianne believes that Elinor, whom she dearly loves, is too cold, and restrained - more concerned with propriety than with feelings. Elinor, on the other hand, is concerned about Marianne's open and guileless behavior. She fears her sister will be hurt by indulging in her strong emotions, and that conventional society will condemn her for this attribute.
The movie opens dramatically, with Mr. Dashwood, the girls' father, on his deathbed, begging his son and heir, (by his first marriage), to please take care of his wife and three daughters after he dies. The spineless John Dashwood sincerely promises his father to do so, and then is persuaded not to by his greedy wife, Fanny, in a wonderful satire-filled scene. Before Elinor, Marianne, their adorable younger sister Margaret, and their mother are forced to leave their home, the Norwood estate, they meet Fanny's brother, the shy and kind Edward Ferrars, (Hugh Grant). Over a period of a few weeks, while the women are packing their belongings, Elinor and Edward grow obviously fond of each other. Their attachment is interrupted by Fanny, who senses the bond forming between her sister-in-law and her brother, and urges the four Dashwood women to leave immediately for their new home.
Upon arriving at their new residence, Barton Cottage, near the estate of Mrs. Dashwood's cousin John, the women meet their relatives and some new neighbors. Colonel Brandon, played by the charismatic Alan Rickman, is included in the welcome party. Brandon is drawn at once to the beautiful, musical Marianne, who does not reciprocate his affection. Instead she falls madly in love with the dashing Willoughby, and Greg Wise is extremely charismatic with his persuasive performance as the reckless, feckless young suitor.
The family settles in and explores their surroundings. Elinor waits in vain for Edward to visit her at Barton Cottage. Willoughby's expected marriage proposal to Marianne is unexpectedly interrupted. Two unhappy sisters travel to London for the season, hoping to settle their romantic affairs, and instead, find their dreams thwarted.
I won't give the story away, but it is a tale told wonderfully well, dramatized to perfection by extraordinary actors, and directed by the incomparable Ang Lee. Too many superlatives? You won't think so after you have seen "Sense And Sensibility."
More than simple romances, Jane Austen's novels are delicately constructed pieces of social commentary, written from her rural Hampshire's perspective. Mostly confined to life in her father's parish, she was nevertheless well aware of early 19th century England's society at large, and fiercely critical of the loss of morals and decorum she saw in its pre-industrial emergent city life. Moreover, experience and observation had made her acutely aware of the corsets forced onto women in fashion terms as much as by social norms, confining them to inactivity and complete dependency on their families' and their (future) husbands' money. And among this movie's greatest strengths is the manner in which it maintains that underlying theme of Austen's writing and brings it to a contemporary audience's attention. "You talk about feeling idle and useless: imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever," Elinor Dashwood (Thompson) tells her almost-suitor Edward Ferrars, and when he replies that "our circumstances are therefore precisely the same," she corrects him: "Except that you will inherit your fortune - we cannot even earn ours."
Rescuing much from the first draft dramatization of Austen's novel and amplifying where necessary, Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee ("who most unexplainably seems to understand me better than I understand myself," Thompson said in her mock-Austen Golden Globe speech) produced a movie scrupulously faithful to what is known about Austen's world and at the same time incredibly modern, thus emphasizing the novel's timeless quality. Paintings were consulted for the movie's production design, and indeed, almost every camera frame - both landscapes and interiors - has the feeling of a picture by a period painter. Thompson cleverly uses poetry where the novel does not contain dialogue; and again, she does so in a manner entirely faithful to Austen's subtleties - most prominently in the joint recital of Shakespeare's Sonnet 116 by Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) and John Willoughby (Greg Wise), where an ever so slight inaccuracy in his rendition of a sonnet he claims to love foreshadows his lacking sincerity.
"Sense and Sensibility" revolves around Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, their quest for a suitable husband, and the sisters' relationship with each other. Emma Thompson maintains that she did not write the screenplay with herself as Elinor in mind and would not have been accepted for that role but for the success of her previous films ("Howards End," "The Remains of the Day"); yet, it is hard to imagine who could have better played sensible Elinor: "effectual, ... [possessing] a coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen [and thus considerably younger than Thompson], to be the counselor of her mother." And real-life 19-year-old Kate Winslet embodies sensitive, artistic Marianne: "eager in everything; [without] moderation ... generous, amiable, interesting: ... everything but prudent." (As an older actress was sought for that part, her agent presented her as 25.) An early scene in which Marianne recites Hartley Coleridge's Sonnet VII ("Is love a fancy or a feeling? No. It is immortal as immaculate truth") symbolizes the sisters' relationship and their personalities, as Marianne mocks Elinor's seemingly cool response to Edward's budding affection. (Mostly taken from the novel, the scene is embellished by the screenplay's sole inexactitude: Coleridge's sonnets were only published 22 years later). Yet, when all her hope seems shattered, Elinor, in a rare outburst of emotion, rebukes her sister: "What do you know of my heart?" - only to comfort her again when she sees that Marianne is equally distraught.
Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman similarly perfectly portray the sisters' suitors Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, both embodying the qualities Austen considered essential: simplicity, sincerity and a firm sense of morality. Willoughby, on the other hand, while entering the story like the proverbial knight on a white horse who rescues the injured Marianne, does not live up to the high expectations he evokes; he causes Marianne to unacceptably abandon decorum and, just as he misspoke in that line from Shakespeare's sonnet, his love eventually "bends with the remover to remove." Similarly, Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs), the near-stumbling block to Elinor's happiness, ultimately proves driven by nothing but an "unceasing attention to self-interest ... with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience" (Austen) and is, despite a fortuitous marriage, as marginalized as the Dashwoods' greedy sister-in-law Fanny (Harriet Walter). Conversely, the boisterous Sir John Middleton and his garrulous mother-in-law, while annoying in their insensitivity, are essentially goodnatured; and marvelously portrayed in their flawed but warmhearted ways by Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs.
"Sense and Sensibility" came out at the height of the mid-1990s' Jane Austen revival. Of all movies released then, and alongside 1996's "Emma" (which has "Hollywood" written all over it) and the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice" (which finally established Colin Firth as the leading man in the U.S. that he had long been in Britain), Emma Thompson's "Sense and Sensibility" is one of those adaptations that future generations of moviegoers will likely turn to in years to come. And it is truly an experience not to be missed.
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