Historical Circuit: Ang Lee Brings Jane Austen’s Words to Life in 1995’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’

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Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet from 1995's "Sense and Sensibility"
Columbia Pictures’ 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility”

TITLE OF FILM: “Sense and Sensibility”
FILM YEAR: 1995
DIRECTOR: Ang Lee
WRITER: Emma Thompson (Based on the novel by Jane Austen)
STARRING: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Greg Wise, Gemma Jones, Emilie Francois, James Fleet, Robert Hardy, Harriet Walter, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Laurie, Tom Wilkinson

SYNOPSIS:

As he lays on his deathbed, Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) informs his son, John, that due to the laws in place, his stepmother and three half-sisters will receive no inheritance upon his death. Mr. Dashwood pleads with John, who is the sole beneficiary, to look after the four women. The request falls on deaf ears, and greedy John and his vindictive wife, Fanny, decide to give the Dashwood women an extremely small stipend in which to live. John and Fanny also request that the women move out of their family home, as it now belongs to John.

While Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) grieves the loss of her husband and her three daughters, Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and Margaret (Emilie Francois) grieve the loss of their father, they must learn to come to terms with their new station in life.

Headstrong Elinor and free spirit Marianne are both unmarried and fully understand that marriage to the right man would be the answer to many of their problems. Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), John Willoughby (Greg Wise) and Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) may each be that answer. But before such commitments can be made, Elinor and Marianne must first reconcile responsibility and desire, duty and love.

OBSERVATIONS:

Kate Winslet, Emilie Francois, Emma Thompson

In interviews, Emma Thompson has stated that it took her five years to complete the script for “Sense and Sensibility.” The audience can most assuredly tell that this is a labor of love. Thompson manages to set the stage perfectly. In the first five minutes of the film, she precisely relays all of the information the audience will need moving forward to understand the dilemma of the Dashwood women. Their predicament is innately sexist and heartbreaking, but her script manages to find a perfect balance of drama, comedy, and romance.

Ang Lee may not seem like the most obvious choice to direct this story. However, the two-time Oscar-winning director of 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” and 2012’s “Life of Pi,” proves more than capable. Lee is often credited with relaying visually stunning films that can be construed as slower in pace. “Sense and Sensibility” is a visual marvel, gorgeously framed and shot. The English countryside and the London city are vivid backdrops and pristinely detailed. And the optics of the contrasting lifestyles of the class system infuse the Dashwood women’s story with urgency.

Set in the late 1700s, the reserved demeanor of the characters could lead some to feel that the film’s pace is slow. I could not disagree more. As the story unfolds, there is an eagerness that never settles. Unlike most story arcs, in “Sense and Sensibility” the audience is kept on their toes because of the words not said and the action not taken.

The costumes designed by Oscar winners Jenny Beavan and John Bright are elegant in their form and structure. The fabrics gather tightly around the actors’ necks and chests and then fall gracefully into skirts or tails. Each piece feels both constricting and freeing. Although the wardrobe is beautiful, the pieces are subtle and never overshadow or envelop the actors.

The ensemble cast makes the most of such distinguished filmmaking. Each member of the cast is deserving of high praise, and gets a chance to stand out. When Rickman’s Brandon sees Winslet’s Marianne for the first time, his face is flush with love. When Winslet’s Marianne stands atop a grassy hill, drenched in rain, quoting Shakespeare and weeping, her heartache is tangible. And when Thompson’s Elinor realizes the truth about the man she loves, her relief soars along with the film’s score.

CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:

Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson

All of Jane Austen’s novels revolve around complex female characters. These women have immense self-worth. They are often witty, well-read and compassionate. These characters are by no means perfect, but they know what they want and are strong in will and mind. In each of her novels, the impediments that each woman faces frequently come from their struggles in finding a husband. This theme may seem dated by today’s western (important to note) standards, but this was a different time. Women could not work, and relied on their fathers and then their husbands to take care of them. Finding a husband was a woman’s main adventure.

In spite of this singular struggle and old-fashioned mindset brought to life in Jane Austen’s works, her novels are as popular as ever. Through her writing, Austen was able to turn the social norms of the time on their head by having the women retain control of their ultimate “ending.” Yes, the women need to get married, but the central female characters never settle for someone they do not truly want. And, the men in their orbit must prove their worth before they hear “yes.”

The title for “Sense and Sensibility” is a reference to the temperaments of the two older sisters. Elinor leads with her head, Marianne with her heart. Despite their differences, Elinor and Marianne respect each other and themselves too much to sacrifice their character in order to help their family’s predicament. In the end, because of their mutual esteem and love, both sisters achieve a healthy balance of each disposition, ultimately leading to a stronger and closer relationship with each other and with the men in their lives.

RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:

Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman

In 1995, Rita Kempley’s review for the Washington Post summed up the film’s positive critical sentiment.

“‘Sense and Sensibility,’ elegantly staged and masterfully acted down to the smallest role, requires a bit of patience toward the end, as the outcome becomes increasingly obvious. But what romantic comedy does not broadcast its good intentions well in advance? And Austen—the great-great-grandmother of the genre—would doubtless have it no other way.”

The film was showered with nominations and awards. The entire ensemble was nominated at the Screen Actors Guild Awards with Thompson and Winslet (who won for Female Actor in a Supporting Role) scoring individual nominations. The film received six Golden Globe Nominations, winning two. BAFTA nominated the film in eleven categories, with wins for Winslet, Thompson (for acting) and Best Film. And the film received seven Oscar nominations- Music, Original Dramatic Score, Costume Design, Cinematography, Supporting Actress, Leading Actress, Director, and Emma Thompson won the Oscar for Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published.

COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:

Jane Austen’s works have been a source of many film and television adaptations. In recent years, audiences have seen “Emma,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Persuasion,” “Mansfield Park” and “Northanger Abbey” brought to life multiple times on the silver screen. Austen’s ability to create strong female characters who rise above social expectations is at the heart of her continued popularity. Her stories are from a time gone by, but her novels’ themes remain as present as ever.

Filmmakers have also taken to using Austen’s novels for more modern, looser re-tellings. 1995’s “Clueless” imitates “Emma,” with Cher (Alicia Silverstone) matchmaking those around her in Beverly Hills. “Pride and Prejudice” was the source for 2016’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James) wielding a sword instead of a book. And 2000’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary” also borrowed from the plot of “Pride and Prejudice,” having frumpy Bridget (Renée Zellweger) work out her feelings for her own pretentious Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth).

WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:

Kate Winslet, Emilie Francois, Emma Thompson, Greg Wise

It is amazing how little has changed in the ways of the heart since “Sense and Sensibility” was first published in 1811. Storytellers continue to use people’s desire for love and happiness as dramatic fodder. Affairs of the heart are never simple. But those feeling are so innate that they often result in the truest of responses from the audience.

I saw “Sense and Sensibility” with my mother when I was nine-years-old. At that young age, I may not have been able to pick up on the minutiae found in each scene. But I was more than capable of understanding the emotions that the film inspired.

“Sense and Sensibility” is one of those rare films that demonstrates love in all of its facets- The love of a mother and of sisters. Unrequited love, forbidden love. Love filled with passion. Love filled with resentment. The longing for a love that inspires true joy. And most importantly, love of self. These desires expressed in the film moved me at nine and still do today. Any story that has the capacity to fill its audience with such a warm understanding will most assuredly transcend age and time.

“Sense and Sensibility” is available for streaming free on Sony Crackle and for rent/purchase of Amazon Prime, VUDU, PlayStation, Youtube, Redbox, Google and Microsoft. 

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