Review: When Emma Thompson was approached with the suggestion to write a screenplay based on Jane Austen’s first novel “Sense and Sensibility” (1811), she was somewhat doubtful because, as she explains on the DVD’s commentary track, she felt that other Austen works, like the more expressive “Emma” and “Persuasion” or the sardonic “Pride and Prejudice” (already the subject of several adaptations) would have been more suitable. Four years and 14 screenplay drafts later (the first, a 300-page handwritten dramatization of the novel’s every scene), “Sense and Sensibility” made its grand entrance into theaters worldwide and mesmerized audiences and critics alike, resulting in an Oscar for Thompson’s screenplay and six further nominations (Best Picture, Leading Actress – Thompson -, Supporting Actress – Kate Winslet -, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Score – for 20 minutes’ worth of composition – and Costume Design); and double honors as Best Picture and for Thompson’s screenplay at the Golden Globes.
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.