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Just when Roger Michell’s tastefully dull Persuasion had filmgoers convinced that movies based on Jane Austen novels were hopelessly staid, along comes Ang Lee’s mirthful, energized Sense and Sensibility to prove them wrong. Helmed by a Taiwanese director (Lee’s previous work includes understated gems like Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet) and adapted for the screen by actress Emma Thompson, a first-time screenwriter, the film seems an unlikely success. As it happens, though, Lee’s sensibilities are perfectly suited to Austen’s elegant 19th-century novel, and Thompson’s screenplay, which draws heavily on its source, avoids both undue desecration and reverence.
The novel, Austen’s first, tells the story of Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet) Dashwood, sisters whose respective excesses of temperament provide the book’s title. Practical, level-headed Elinor never shows her feelings, while moody, romantic Marianne can’t stop talking about hers. As Marianne puts it to her sister, “You confide nothing and I conceal nothing.” The novel, of course, is about achieving the proper balance between the two: In order to be happy, Elinor must learn to admit vulnerability, and Marianne must learn self-control.
All of Jane Austen’s novels, including Sense and Sensibility, are love stories, but they all have a grim economic subtext. As the film opens, the Dashwood sisters, along with their mother and younger sister Margaret (Emile François), are being forced to vacate the family home. The girls’ father has died, and the estate has passed to their avaricious half-brother who, with encouragement from his odious wife Fanny (Harriet Walter), hastily forgets his promise to provide for the Dashwood sisters and their mother. “People always live longer when there’s an annuity due them,” Fanny snaps. Awaiting eviction, the sisters devote their time to characteristic pursuits: Marianne plays melancholy dirges on the piano as Elinor makes gifts for the servants they must leave behind.
Before the brood relocates to a Devonshire cottage, however, Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) arrives for a visit. Edward’s mother wants him to enter a prestigious profession, but he wants only to enter the church, where he can “keep chickens and give very short sermons.” Edward and Elinor are smitten with each other, but Fanny sends her brother packing when she realizes what’s afoot. The move is a sad one for Elinor, but the Dashwoods’ new residence provides Marianne with a profusion of suitors. Reserved neighbor Col. Brandon falls in love with her, but Marianne prefers the dashing, handsome John Willoughby, a man as emotional as she (he carries a slim volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets with him at all times). The remainder of the film is concerned with how the sisters’ romantic entanglements endeavor to resolve themselves.
Such resolutions are made more difficult by the fact that both the Dashwood sisters and their suitors are subject to a set of social strictures that make direct communication an impossibility. The filmmakers do an admirable job of conveying the era’s stifling formality. Many of Sense’s best scenes depict situations rendered excruciatingly awkward by the demands of decorum or conversations so oblique that nothing whatsoever gets said. Edward’s halting admission that he is already engaged, for instance, is so roundabout that he’s hustled out of town before he finishes it. There is no circumstance so extreme that it warrants the abandonment of good manners: Even when Willoughby finds Marianne lying on a hillside in a thunderstorm with a twisted ankle, he carefully asks her permission to check for broken bones.
Sense assembles an amazing ensemble cast that seems to encompass every British actor imaginable. Winslet, who was so insidiously evil as the homicidal teen-ager in Heavenly Creatures, makes the perpetually overwrought Marianne almost likable. Grant’s bumbling, abstracted charm is perfectly suited to the role of wimpy Edward Ferrars; his high Empire collar underscores his perpetual discomfort. Elizabeth Spriggs (who recently appeared as a particularly nasty Sairey Gamp in Masterpiece Theater’s Martin Chuzzlewit) is perfectly unbearable as Mrs. Jennings, the Dashwoods’ well-meaning but thoroughly vulgar relation. In a very small role as Mrs. Jennings’ extremely acerbic son-in-law, Hugh Laurie (who played Bertie Wooster in PBS’s Jeeves and Wooster) walks off with every scene in which he appears.
Much of Austen’s dialogue is amazingly timeless. Cutting one-liners like “He’s the sort of man everybody speaks well of and nobody remembers to talk to,” seem to belong to a far later—and far nastier—literary age. Likewise, the progression of certain scenes seems almost cinematic even on the page—particularly the opening series in which Fanny, over the course of several conversations, persuades her husband not to offer the Dashwoods any financial assistance. Despite the novel’s seemingly modern elements, Lee grounds the story firmly in its own era. As the sisters alight from a carriage to attend a London ball, for example, they step gingerly over horse manure.
The film is rich in playful visual detail, right down to the skinny whippet in Fanny’s lap, a sort of objective correlative of her moral emaciation. Sometimes Lee lets visuals alone tell the story, as when Elinor finds herself on a landing facing three closed doors behind which her mother and sisters are all sobbing loudly. In a move that perfectly encapsulates her character, Elinor simply plops down on the stairs to wait it out.
For late-18th-century women, the distinction between economics and romance could be a negligible one. Lee never loses sight of the interconnectedness of the two. Elinor and Marianne’s pursuit of romance takes place against the backdrop of the family’s decline into genteel poverty. They are too poor to afford full mourning and must trim their everyday clothes in black instead; in one scene, they cut beef from their menu to save money. No one, especially not their mother, loses sight of the fact that true love has economic as well as spiritual rewards. Fortunately, in Jane Austen, if not in life, everyone gets what they deserve.CP