Sense and Sensibility conjures up different ideas for different people. For most, it is the lush critical and commercial success of 1995, a staple of the rich profusion of heritage dramas that captivated us in the final years of the 20th century. Often, it is also labelled as the first cinematic Austen adaptation since 1940 or, alternatively, the movie that flung Ang Lee into the stream of international consciousness. With all its accolades and superlatives however, it is easy to forget the stylistic essence of the film itself: an enduring embodiment of both sense and sensibility.
The story begins with the death of Mr Dashwood, an opening uncharacteristically darker than the more conventional Jane Austen tale. Although not more than two or three minutes, the minimally-lit scene establishes a quiet nefariousness, a foreshadowing of the troubles to come. Dashwood must leave all his property to his son, as per the law of the times. His three daughters and wife from another marriage are allowed the meagre sum of £500 a year, an amount barely enough to survive on.
We are then promptly introduced to the young ladies themselves: Elinor, Marianne and the little Margaret. The older sisters contrast enormously, and are the titular heroes of the film. As a series of intriguing events unfold, we gain a deep insight into the two women —we watch them grow as people and patiently wait for the satisfying culmination in which sense and sensibility finally come together.
So much has been said of Thompson’s magnificent script that the addition of my own praise seems almost unnecessary. For what it’s worth though, I thought her writing quite wonderful. Whilst retaining Austen’s blend of drama and comical sweetness, Thompson brings the classic tale alive with an innovate accessibility so appropriate and engaging for the modern viewer. Through her, the truth and humanity of Jane Austen’s original characterisation, a fervent meaning in each individual of the story, is also conveyed beautifully.
As for the performances, Emma Thompson (I might as well go all out —practically been eulogising her already) is memorable as Elinor Dashwood, the paragon of wisdom and restraint. A favourite scene of mine is the rather infamous one towards the end in which Edward reveals that he is unmarried and therefore free to be with her. Elinor’s moment of realisation (the completely unprecedented wail of joy) is pure emotion bursting forth and works wonderfully. Lee’s final touch, an apparent urge to Thompson to resist turning her face, is a little stroke of genius in itself. All these elements come together to make something surreal, a perfect combination of humour, romance and drama.
Kate Winslet in the role of the impulsive Marianne, as well as Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman as the sisters’ love interests, are also foreseeably fantastic in their respective roles. A surprising but very welcome performance is that of Hugh Laurie’s as the bitingly hilarious Mr Palmer, a grumpy gentleman who begrudgingly reveals himself to be a good guy.
It was in 1995, before Mr Ang Lee became a household name, (can we even remember such a time?) that Sense and Sensibility was released. Here, he demonstrates to the public a rare sensitivity, a quality reminiscent of the golden era that some profess quite lost in the hoopla of the pool of special effects and nonstop action. Perhaps this is the answer to that imponderable question: exactly why did all those Jane Austen stories suddenly succeed so spectacularly?
My belief it that it is so much more than those quaint British landscapes —pretty gardens and perfect lawns abound. Nor does Jane Austen’s appeal stem from a modern fascination over the trivialities of bourgeois and aristocracy. It is simply, at least for me, the timelessness of her characters. Whether it is the passionate Marianne or the bumblingly charming Mr Ferrars, we find in all these fallible individuals a certain heroism, a dignified honesty that us ordinary (and non-fictional) folk have always tried to emulate.We find comfort in the belief of a simpler, nobler time, and, as absurd as it seems, we think it might just have been possible. We think to ourselves: perhaps it is still possible.