Monday, June 27, 2011

Sense & Sensibility (1995 film)

Originally Written and Posted at on 4/2/09 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Still popular for many years, the novels of Jane Austen has been ready by countless readers throughout the years. One of Austen's most popular novels is her first published novel called Sense & Sensibility released in 1811. The novel tells the story of two sisters who fall in love and deal with heartbreak while moving to a home as their left destitute when their father gives his estate to their half-brother. The book has been acclaimed by many readers though a film adaptation has been attempted for several years. While a 1981 TV serial was the first attempt some acclaim, it would be another adaptation in 1995 that would help create a new wave of film adaptations of Jane Austen's novels as the famed novelist would gain a new generation of fans through both books and film adaptations.

The 1995 film version of Sense & Sensibility tells the story of three sisters and a mother left destitute due to an inheritance deal as they move to a cottage with their relatives. Two sisters would fall in love and deal with heartbreak as their lives would change. Helming the film adaptation is Taiwan-born director Ang Lee, who had just come off the critical acclaim of his third film Eat Drink Man Woman as he makes his first Hollywood-style production. Writing the adaptation is actress Emma Thompson who takes on the role of Elinor Dashwood. Also starring Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Greg Wise, Gemma Jones, Imelda Staunton, Robert Hardy, Hugh Laurie, Imogen Stubbs, and Tom Wilkinson. Sense & Sensibility is a charming, dramatic, and wonderfully humorous film from Ang Lee.

After hearing his the last request of his dying father (Tom Wilkinson), John Dashwood (James Fleet) gets his inheritance only if he would take care of his stepmother (Gemma Jones) and his three half-sisters.  Unfortunately, John's wife Fanny (Harriet Waller) has ideas of her own forcing Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne (Kate Winslet), and Margaret (Emilie Francois) out of their estate and a small inheritance which isn't enough.  Fanny's brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grants) makes a visit as he befriends Elinor and Margaret as he helps them gather their things much to Fanny's chagrin.   Moving to a cottage that is owned by Mrs. Dashwood's cousin Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy) and his wife (Elizabeth Spriggs), the Dashwood women are invited to tea where Colonel Christopher Brandon (Alan Rickman) makes a visit as he becomes smitten by Marianne during a piano performance.

With Brandon befriending Marianne and Elinor longing for Edward, who remains in London and manages to mail Margaret's atlas book, Marianne walks with Margaret as they meet John Willoughby (Greg Wise) whom Marianne falls for.  Brandon holds a picnic with Mrs. Jenning's daughter Charlotte (Imelda Staunton) and her husband Mr. Palmer (Hugh Laurie) as their cousin Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs) attend.  Yet, the picnic is abruptly cancelled when Brandon had to go to London that only furthers Marianne's attraction to Willoughby who also has to go to London to meet with his aunt Lady Allen.  The distraught Marianne gets upset until an invite from the Palmers to go to London with Lucy and Mrs. Jennings has her wanting to see Willoughby while Eilnor reluctantly goes to London to accompany Marianne.  

During their trip to London, Marianne learns some news that devastates her while Col. Brandon reveals to Elinor about Willoughby.  Elinor also meets Edward already knowing about his secret engagement to Lucy, which eventually gets revealed putting Edward in trouble until Col. Brandon makes a deal for Edward that he couldn't refuse.  Returning to Devonshire with the Palmers and Col. Brandon, the Dashwoods stay at the Palmers where Marianne becomes ill prompting Elinor to ponder if she and her sister will ever find happiness.

One of the key traits of Jane Austen's novels is strong female protagonists. In this story, we have two in Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Two sisters both mourning the death of their father and having to lose their home to their selfish, greedy sister-in-law. When they each encounter suitors who might seem fine for them only to realize something more complicated in their own lives. They face heartbreak and such while it's the bond between Elinor and Marianne that is unique. Emma Thompson, who is a devoted fan of Austen's novels, does a fantastic job with the adaptation in taking on what is needed for the story and such. Though with all adaptation, it's not perfect due to what details that are cut and such. Still, Thompson captures the heart of the story and its characters.

Thompson's screenplay is filled with plot structure and plot points that carry the story as it transitions from this lightly-humored story to something more dramatic. From its opening scene of the dying Mr. Dashwood telling his son to take care of Mrs. Dashwood and his half-sisters. Once the audience is introduced to Fanny, it's clear that the Dashwood women will be in trouble. When audiences get to know Elinor, it's clear she's kind of the head of the family who is organizing things and taking care of everyone. Including her mother, who is grieving, and her youngest sister Margaret who is adventurous and finds comfort in the likes of Edward and Col. Brandon. Marianne is a young woman who is just being helpful until she comes across Willoughby as she becomes lovesick over him. When Willoughby is forced to break off the relationship due to troubling circumstances and is forced to fend off Marianne. She becomes heartbroken and distraught only to go into illness when she walks towards Willoughby's home in the rain.

While Austen has been known for creating stories with strong women, there's always men in her stories that are just as complex. Edward Ferrars arrives as a man who is shy and at times, stutters when he's nervous yet provides a sense of charm and wit that Margaret enjoys and something comforting for Elinor. Yet, when it's revealed that he's engaged to someone else. He has no idea how to say all of this because he deeply cares for Elinor but doesn't want to hurt her or Lucy. Yet, Ferrars is a man that is certainly a joy to watch with flaws and all while revealing that he's just someone into simple things.

The character of Colonel Brandon is seen as a melancholic, morose man who had lost a great love in his life years ago and seems disconnected to some degree. The moment he hears Marianne sing and sees her play, it's as if he is awaken as it's love at first sight for the middle-aged army colonel. Becoming fully attentive to her needs and giving her flowers and such. It all goes well until the appearance of Willoughby where he finds himself competing with the younger, more dashing man. Brandon nearly concedes until learning what Willoughby had done as he focuses his sole attention towards Marianne.

Thompson's screenplay is rich with its development of characters and broad, light humor. Nearly every character gets a chance to shine whether it is through humor or drama. Helming all of this is Taiwanese director Ang Lee in his first English-language film debut. An outsider like Lee in doing a 19th Century period piece might seem like it could go wrong. Instead, Lee's straightforward direction with rich compositions, wide shots, and intimate scenery is mesmerizing in everything he captures. Even in allowing the humor to be well-played with such subtlety and the drama being restrained for the most part except in a few scenes. Lee also creates a great mix of humor and melancholia in a few scenes. Notably a scene in which Margaret, Marianne, and Mrs. Dashwood are all in their rooms crying with Elinor sitting on the stairs listening to them.

The way Lee captures those scenes along with the dramatic moment that includes long, wide shots of these hills and mountains of the English countryside. In other dramatic moments at the cottage that the Dashwood women live in, Lee knows when to pull the camera away for unique compositions and scenery as if he knows not to impose on the characters in these emotional moments. Lee also creates unique shots like a crane shot on a party scene from the inside or a shot from the ceiling to see what is happening. The creative compositions Lee creates along with his staging of the drama is purely rich and intoxicating in every scene he creates. It's a testament to his talent as he's regarded as one of cinema's great directors.

Cinematographer Michael Coulter does fantastic work with the film's cinematography from the gorgeous, exterior rainy day shots of the English countryside to the days of sunshine where it's done with little tricks and such. The interior scenes are truly majestic and dream-like to the period setting at hand. From the sepia-like candlelight shots of the nighttime exteriors to the shading of light through the windows. Coulter's work is magnificent in its atmosphere and devotion to the period in its look. Lee's longtime editor Tim Squyres does excellent work with the film's editing in the use of dissolve transitions and straight cuts to give the film a leisurely pace that isn't too slow. Squyres plays to the rhythm of the drama and humor with his cutting while moving the film from scene to scene with such ease without losing its rhythm and pace.

Production designer Luciana Arrighi along with set decorator Ian Whittaker and art directors Philip Elton and Andrew Sanders do an amazing job in the look of the estates and cottages of 19th Century England with its tables, appliances, and such. Even the huge atlas book that Margaret is fond of is well-made along with other little details including carriages. The art direction overall is superb in its authenticity including the costume design by Jenny Beaven and John Bright. The costumes from the suits the men wear with top hats and coats to the dresses the women wear from the simpler to the more lavish. The costume design is purely splendid in its detail and look. Sound editor Steve Hamilton does a great job in the sound work from the nature-like atmosphere of the countryside to the more busy, chaotic sounds of London. Even the interior scenes from the sounds of the floor to the clinks of tea are all masterfully captured.

The film's score by Patrick Doyle is wonderfully subtle and rich with its arrangements of piano-driven flourishes to more orchestral, broader sounds to play up the film's drama. Doyle's score is truly majestic while includes some traditional piano pieces played by Winslet who also sings in the film.

The casting by Michelle Guish is phenomenal in the casting of nearly every part of the film. From small appearances from Lone Vidahl as Lady Grey, Allan Mitchell as Mrs. Jennings' butler Pigeon, Oliver Ford Davies as Dr. Harris, and as the Dashwood women's loyal servants, Isabelle Amyes as Betsy and Ian Brimble as Thomas. Other notable performances from Richard Lumsden as Robert Ferrars and Tom Wilkinson in a small but memorable appearance as Mr. Dashwood are excellent. Small but memorable performances from Imelda Staunton as Charlotte Jennings Palmer and Hugh Laurie as her annoyed husband Mr. Palmer are funny with Laurie being all deadpan in his humor. Robert Hardy as Sir Middleton and Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs. Jennings are also funny for their lavish personalities as they say the wrong things yet bring laughs in nearly every scene they're in.

James Fleet is good as John Dashwood, the half-brother who inherits everything while Harriet Waller is brilliant as the scheming, snobbish Fanny who wants everything for herself. Imogen Stubbs is wonderful as Lucy Steele, Edward Ferrars' secret fiancee who befriends Elinor though her intentions are good and just wants to be part of a family. Greg Wise is excellent as Willoughby, the dashing young man who falls for Marianne only to be hindered by his own troubles and later, rejecting her. Emilie Francois is great as Margaret, the youngest Dashwood girl who has a love of adventure and exploration as she has some great scenes with Hugh Grant doing some pretend sword fighting. Gemma Jones is good as Mrs. Dashwood, the grieving widow who is living with her daughters while dealing with some of Elinor's judgements over Willoughby and her fears for her daughters' future.

Hugh Grant is extraordinary as Edward Ferrars, the shy, stuttering man who falls for Elinor but deals with his loyalty towards Lucy while hoping for a simple life. Grant's subtlety and light, comic-timing is perfect for the character who is flawed but honorable as it's masterfully performed with such restraint from Hugh Grant. Alan Rickman, known to American audiences in villain-like roles as Hans Gruber in Die Hard and the complex Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, is amazing as the melancholic, middle-aged Colonel Brandon. Rickman's restrained performance is a marvel to watch as he pines for Marianne and being attentive to her needs while forced to watch in the sidelines as she falls for Willoughby. Rickman is a real surprise as he has great scenes with both Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet while being the man that every woman needs in terms of loyalty and attention.

In one of her pre-Titanic film roles, Kate Winslet is phenomenal as Marianne. The innocent, lovesick young lady who deals with her first love and heartbreak over Willoughby only to find comfort in Col. Brandon shows Winslet in one of her great performances. Filled with humor, charm, and melodrama, it's a performance from a young actress who would later become a force in the years to come as it has Winslet showing her talents that rank up there with veterans like Thompson and Rickman. Emma Thompson is superb as Elinor Dashwood, the elder sister who is trying to take care of things while falling for the young Edward Ferrars. Thompson's subtle, hardened performance is one of the actresses great roles as she rarely displays any heavy emotions until the third act. It's a magnificent performance from the great actress who rarely gives bad performances as she displays herself with dignity and grace.

Released in late 1995, the film drew rave reviews as it was also a modest box office hit. The film garnered several nominations for the Academy Awards with a surprise win for Emma Thompson in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. The film also helped raise Ang Lee's profile as he officially arrived in Hollywood where he would have a career with several critical hits and landmark films for the years to come. The film also helped mark a new revival in the works of Jane Austen which was also helped by Amy Heckerling's adaptation of Emma in the hit teen-comedy Clueless released earlier that summer.

Sense & Sensibility is a majestic, charming, and remarkable film from Ang Lee featuring a superb cast led by Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman. Fans of Jane Austen's work, whether in film or books, will enjoy the story as it's true to what Austen had envisioned. For Ang Lee, this film is truly one of his essential masterworks with such films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and The Ice Storm proving his versatility in stories and cinematic style. In the end, Sense & Sensibility is a film that is entertaining with such grace and style from the mind of Ang Lee, screenwriter Emma Thompson, and its novelist Jane Austen.

(C) thevoid99 2011


Anonymous said...

For some reason, I didn't like this film as much as others. I thought it was a bit cheesy and none of it really connected to me in any way. I don't know what it was I just didn't like it really. Good Review though Steven!

thevoid99 said...

Well, Jane Austen isn't for everyone at first. Sure, the sense of longing for a man might seem cheesy but that's only because the women are falling for the wrong men or the right man is acting like a fool. Wait till you're older and with a girl, you'll appreciate it.