The movie business is nothing if not paradoxical, which is another way of saying that a year marked by careful attention paid to graphic and grotesque violence has also brought forth enough different approaches to the delicate novels of Jane Austen to inspire an academic symposium.
First came “Clueless,” a sassy modernization of “Emma” that retained only the barest bones of Austen’s plot. Then, courtesy of the BBC, came “Persuasion,” the most authentically British version and the one closest to the spirit of the novels. Finally, falling somewhere between those two poles, is “Sense and Sensibility,” the audience-friendly Hollywood version of Austen, easygoing and aiming to please.
Like the two that came before it, “Sense and Sensibility,” directed by Ang Lee (“The Wedding Banquet,” “Eat Drink Man Woman”) and starring Emma Thompson, who also wrote the script, is proof to any doubters of the resilience and continuing emotional power of an author who began writing 200 years ago.
The like-clockwork delight of “Sense’s” plot, the shrewdness of Austen’s characterizations plus excellent casting are enough to overcome whatever qualms, and there are some, viewers might have. The center always holds with Austen, enabling this film to turn out right even though some of it feels rather wrong.
For today’s audiences, Austen’s world is easy to lose yourself in. It was an age of extreme politeness and ritualized conversation, yet it was also a time when barriers to romance were everywhere. Love and money rarely traveled in the same circles, and questions of wealth and property were often the determining factor in who could marry and who could not.
The death of family patriarch Henry Dashwood sets “Sense’s” plot in motion. The law forces him to leave the family estate of Norland in Sussex to John, his son from a previous marriage. And John’s grasping wife, Fanny (a tart Harriet Walter), ensures that that means trouble to Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones), the dead man’s second wife, and the three daughters he left behind. There is the young Margaret (Emilie Francois) and the two older sisters who give the story its name, common-sensical Elinor (Thompson) and passionate, romantic Marianne (Kate Winslet).
Much more favorably inclined toward the Dashwoods, especially toward Elinor, is Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant). A man of disarming diffidence and charming humility, he and Elinor seem on the verge of forming “an attachment” when they are separated and the Dashwoods go to live in far-off Devonshire with the generous Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy) and his mother-in-law, the comically vulgar Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs).
There the sensitive Marianne has to deal with a pair of suitors. First out of the blocks is the reserved, distant Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), a mournful gentleman with a secret tragedy in his past. Easily eclipsing him, however, is the dashing Willoughby, whose passion for poetry and wildflowers seems a perfect match for Marianne, who embraces his spirit with scandalous ardor. As for Elinor, complicating her measured regard for Edward Ferrars is an encounter with the smooth-tongued Lucy Steele (a wonderful part for Imogen Stubbs) who may or may not be on intimate terms with the gentleman.
The fun of “Sense and Sensibility,” among other things, is wondering if anything will make Marianne more sensible and Elinor more emotional. In this the film is helped by some fine casting. Darkly handsome Greg Wise is an ideal Willoughby, Grant is appropriately awkward and well-meaning as Mr. Ferrars, and Thompson is a clear-headed and careful Elinor. Best of the group is Winslet, just as impressive as the impulsive, unaffected, temperamental Marianne as she was as Juliet Hulme in the much-applauded “Heavenly Creatures.”
But if it hasn’t tampered overmuch with essentials, this “Sense and Sensibility” is troublesome around the periphery. Part of the problem is that Taiwan-born Lee, though he does a more-than-credible job of directing, isn’t sharp on the nuances of British behavior. Some of the performances, like Rickman’s overly morose Colonel Brandon and the film’s several comic eccentrics, are a beat or so off. And with a precise writer who was as acutely conscious of intangibles of character as Austen, that lack is noticeable.
Not helping as much as it might is Emma Thompson’s script. Austen’s original lines, for instance, “people always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them,” have an immediately recognizable bite, and Thompson, a first-time scriptwriter after all, is not up to matching them in her own work. More troublesome is her tendency to replace Austen’s wit with a wisecrack tone. And periodic moments of raucous slapstick adds a jarring note that broadens the proceedings, presumably to make them more palatable to a larger audience.
At day’s end, however, it seems churlish to complain about a film that creates so much good feeling by its fail-safe close. The sensibility may be a bit off, but there is more than enough sense involved in this mid-Atlantic Austen to make up the difference.
* MPAA rating: PG, for mild thematic elements. Times guidelines: completely unobjectionable.
‘Sense and Sensibility’
Emma Thompson: Elinor Dashwood
Alan Rickman: Colonel Brandon
Kate Winslet: Marianne Dashwood
Hugh Grant: Edward Ferrars
Greg Wise: Willoughby
Emilie Francois: Margaret Dashwood
Imogen Stubbs: Lucy Steele
A Mirage production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Ang Lee. Producer Lindsay Doran. Executive producer Sydney Pollack. Screenplay Emma Thompson, based on the novel by Jane Austen. Cinematographer Michael Coulter. Editor Tim Squyres. Costumes Jenny Beavan, John Bright. Music Patrick Doyle. Production design Luciana Arrighi. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.