Sense and Sensibility (1995) / Drama
MPAA rated: PG for mild thematic elements
Running time: 136 min.
Cast: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Gemma Jones, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Emilie Francois, Greg Wise, Imelda Staunton, Tom Wilkinson
Director: Jake Schreier
Screenplay: Christopher D. Ford
Review published September 13, 2012
Nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning one for actress Emma Thompson's (Wit, Nanny McPhee) excellent adaptation (her first screenplay), Sense & Sensibility is the definitive film version of Jane Austen's classic novel of 1811. Thompson herself stars as Elinor Dashwood, the eldest of three sisters who end up struggling financially after the death of their father (Wilkinson, The Full Monty), who was forced by law to will his estate to his eldest son from a prior marriage, with the imploration that they take care of the women. When the half-brother reneges on his promise, leaving the sisters and their mother(Gemma Jones, The Winslow Boy) to relocate to less lush living conditions with family friends, but not before she ends up developing a flirtatious dalliance with her step-brother-in-law Edward Ferrars (Grant, Nine Months), a courteous bachelor who would surely lose his wealth should his disapproving mother ever enter into a relationship with the likes of Elinor. Meanwhile, younger sister Marianne (Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) enters into a flirtatious dalliance of her own with a handsome and dashing man named John Willoughby (Wise, Johnny English), while things become increasingly complicated due in part to Marianne herself being pursued by smitten bachelor, Colonel Brandon (Rickman, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).
Thompson's screenplay, which took her several years to complete, is terrific, and perfectly in sync with Ang Lee's (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hulk) richly dramatic directorial style, in this rich look at the English reliance on strict social attitudes and manners. Though Austen's book is set over a century prior, there is a distinctly straightforward, modern feel to the film that allows viewers who might normally eschew stuffy period pieces to easily follow along with the story, as it concentrates more on the emotional drama among the parties than it does on the events of the day. Normally, one might not care about whether a couple of young women find suitable men to marry, but here it feels like the most important thing in the world, and we can feel just how much finding a true and lasting love will mean. Marrying well might make the difference between a life of bliss and comfort or a life of struggles and strife, while it definitely dictates how well one is treated within their social circles on a daily basis. In mid-19th Century England, this union is perhaps the most important decision on can make.
The casting is quite good throughout, with Kate Winslet embodying the middle sister ruled by her passionate, somewhat reckless "sense" of things, while Emma Thompson is perfect for the for role of the reserved older sister, who lets life run due to her "sensibility," whereby she mutes her emotions for more practical pursuits. Thompson puts a good deal of very subtle humor into the story, adding to that which Jane Austen brought herself, and gives the characters the dimension they need to breathe amid the despair of seeing their wealth, status, and everything they've come to know and love in their world slipping away. Hugh Grant does what he does best, which is play an awkward, nervous but well-meaning suitor.
But, really, it's the simplicity in which the story is told that makes Sense & Sensibility such a joy to watch, as we come to know and like the characters in an intimate way, reducing the stuffiness of typical costume dramas by bringing the story to the level of the audience, without much ballyhoo or overly romanticized reverence for the classic novel. Lavish parties aren't the norm. Just quiet moments, knowing glances, and subtle, deeply pained conversations. Sense & Sensibility is elegant and beautifully filmed, but also personal and approachable, with a story that gives us the intimate portrayals of common women, even if the anticipation of an Austen adaptation suggest a larger than life approach.
©2012 Vince Leo