Sense and Sensibility
1995, PG, 135 min. Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Gemma Jones, Emilie Francois, Elizabeth Spriggs, Greg Wise, Imogen Stubbs.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 15, 1995
Who could have imagined that 1995 would have been such a banner year for Jane Austen? This new film adaptation of Austen's first novel, Sense and Sensibility, is the third Austen appearance onscreen this year. Earlier, there was the excellent adaptation of Persuasion and, remarkably enough, even Amy Heckerling declared that her movie Clueless owes a great debt to Austen's Emma. Whether this cluster is mere coincidence or an indicator of new social trends in film is a matter for conjecture… but not here. Here, I'm willing to count my blessings and not fret about their source. Sense and Sensibility is a wonderfully fashioned film adaptation, which only makes us rue there not being more Jane Austen novels for filmmakers to rework. The movie is lively, beautiful, and funny, though perhaps not as subtle as some of Austen's later work. It is, typically, a story about manners and morals set within a narrative context of finding suitable husbands for eligible young women. (Such a passé story line has greater relevance in this early 18th-century British setting when women were denied both occupations and inheritance; the setting also makes the characters' desire to marry for love rather than security a much more daring notion than it might seem currently.) Though many might be surprised by the choice of Taiwanese director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) to helm this English period production, his sensibilities turn out to be in perfect accord with Austen's. Both artists use the subtleties of domestic microcosms for their tableaux, though until now, each explored the confines of radically different cultures. Even more intriguing is the accomplished screenplay by actress Emma Thompson, who also stars as the elder sister Elinor Dashwood. It is her first screenplay and its skillfulness belies her inexperience. Thompson has pruned the novel into solid dramatic nuggets and kept the excisions and alterations reasonable. One of the movie's biggest changes is the casting of Thompson as Elinor. In the novel, the character is 19 years old and her sister Marianne is 17. As played by Thompson and the dazzling Kate Winslet (Heavenly Creatures), the sisters are clearly older and more mature, but that alteration does not harm the story so much as add a greater urgency to their situation. Not enough can be said about this fine cast, each of whom chisels a vibrant, one-of-a-kind characterization. Sense and Sensibility is an absorbing, delightful, and nuanced movie with laugh-out-loud humor, and though it often plays events broadly where you might have preferred subtlety, it's not a movie that could have settled for muffled silence.