Sense and Sensibility (United Kingdom, 1995)
It's a curious thing that the best 1995 adaptation of a Jane Austen book happens to be of her worst novel. Sense and Sensibility was the author's first published work and, as is often the case with early writing efforts, displays an undeniable shallowness: themes are half-developed, characterization is uneven, and plotting follows a predictable straight-forwardness. Austen's later books, including Persuasion, which was developed into a wonderfully sumptuous film earlier this year, and Emma, which received unusual treatment in Clueless, plumb the human soul far more deeply, creating characters and situations of greater versatility and vitality.
That's more in the nature of literary criticism than a film review, however. Sense and Sensibility is a wonderful motion picture, even given the weaknesses of the source material. Emma Thompson's screenplay has remained faithful to the events and spirit of the book, while somehow managing to plug a few holes and infuse the tale with more light humor than is evident in Austen's original text. The resulting product is a little too long (one-hundred thirty-five minutes), but still represents a fine time at the movies, especially for those with a bent towards historical romantic melodramas.
As mentioned above, the story isn't all that complex or surprising, and those unfamiliar with Austen's work won't be left in the dark. We're introduced to the three Dashwood sisters: Elinor (Emma Thompson), the eldest -- a old maid past marriageable age who keeps her emotions bottled up in favor of a constant show of public decorum; Marianne (Kate Winslet), the middle child, who is Elinor's opposite in temperament and attitude; and Margaret (Emilie Francois), an eleven-year old who seems to be following in Marianne's uninhibited footsteps. The girls live with their mother (Gemma Jones) in a small country cottage to which they are "exiled" after their half-brother inherits their father's estate and decides there's not enough room for everyone.
During the course of Sense and Sensibility, three men come in and out of the Dashwoods' home: Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), a charming, if somewhat inept, young gentleman who captures Elinor's heart; Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), a gallant neighbor who is hopelessly smitten by Marianne; and the dashing Willoughby (Greg Wise), who is the living embodiment of Marianne's every fantasy. The story of who ends up with whom, and how they get that way, is told with deft skill and a pleasantly humorous romantic touch.
As is so often the case in British productions, acting is more important than the script or the impressive production values. Emma Thompson's Elinor can join the actresses' characters from Howards End, The Remains of the Day, and this year's Carrington as examples of top-notch, finely-nuanced performances. Here, perhaps borrowing a leaf from Anthony Hopkins, she develops a poignant portrait of a woman who must conceal a broken heart beneath a proper, civilized exterior. Thompson, who has never before played a character suffering from this kind of repression, proves she's as good at this as she is being the freespirit.
Kate Winslet, who received her first international exposure through Heavenly Creatures, fits perfectly into the period setting, recalling a younger Helena Bonham Carter. Her youth and energy are perfect for the overly-emotional Marianne. Winslet isn't as accomplished as Thompson at capturing the camera's attention, but rarely is she completely eclipsed, either. She interacts effectively with her co-star as Marianne and Elinor learn from each other when it's best to temper emotions and when it's best to let them go.
As expected, the supporting cast is excellent. Emilie Francois is a marvelous find as little Margaret. Hugh Grant brings his usual boyish charm to Edward, and Alan Rickman (Die Hard), too often pigeonholed into villainous roles, shows for the first time since Truly, Madly, Deeply that he's very much at home in a romantic part. Greg Wise is suitably roguish, and veterans Gemma Jones (Feast of July), Harriet Walter (Harriet Vane in TV's Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries), and Robert Hardy (Mary Shelly's Frankenstein) give personality to characters with less screen exposure.
The novel's flaws guarantee that Sense and Sensibility cannot be a perfect motion picture, but it would be difficult, I think, to do much better with the material than Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee (Eat Drink Man Woman) have here. With more Jane Austen on the way (versions of Pride and Prejudice and Emma), it's still too early to say which adaptation will stand out as the best, but Sense and Sensibility makes a strong case.
Sense and Sensibility (United Kingdom, 1995)
Cast: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Greg Wise, Gemma Jones, Emilie Francois, Harriet Walter
Screenplay: Emma Thompson based on the novel by Jane Austen
Cinematography: Michael Coulter
Music: Patrick Doyle
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures