Enjoyable, civilized, yet somehow not as satisfying as
"Persuasion," another recently released Austen adaptation.
and Sensibility" was the first and one of the least of Jane Austen's
novels; she wrote it in 1795, but it was not published for 16 years, until she
had found the courage to declare herself as a novelist. It was written by a
young woman who ostensibly had little experience of the world - although her
fiction proves she missed little that occurred on her domestic stage - and the
story reflects that orientation, as a mother and her three daughters wait
passively while all of the interesting men in the vicinity disappear on
unexplained missions to London.
a modern story, the women would have demanded explanations.
gives "Sense and Sensibility" its tension and mystery is that the
characters rarely say what they mean. There is great gossip within the women's
sphere, but with men, the conversation loops back upon itself in excruciating
euphemisms, leaving the women to puzzle for weeks over what was or was not
the story opens, the Dashwood estate passes to a stingy male heir, who provides
only a few hundred pounds a year to his father's second wife and her three
daughters. The widow Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her girls find themselves torn
from the life of country gentry and forced to live on this meager income in a
cottage generously supplied by a distant relative.
is now the task of the girls to find themselves husbands. The oldest, Elinor
(Emma Thompson), is no longer in first flower. The middle, Marianne (Kate
Winslet), is in full bloom. The youngest, Margaret (Emile Francois), is still
at this point largely interested in tree houses, and hiding under tables in the
library. The women spend many hours by the fire at their sewing, waiting for
eligible men to drift into their nets, and some of the film's funniest moments
have the mother and daughters quickly composing themselves into a tableau of
domestic bliss just in time for a man to happen upon them.
first man in view is Edward (Hugh Grant), the brother-in-law of the stingy
Dashwood son. He is charming, and definitely interested in Elinor, but as
Marianne observes, "there is something wanting." Exactly what is
wanting is explained later in the film, when we discover why Edward is
prevented from declaring the full extent of his love.
leaves suddenly for London. The next man to appear is Col. Brandon, played by
that indispensable villain Alan Rickman, who is not a villain this time but
seems to be, with his dark, brooding air and the speaking style of a
sentimental hangman. He is attracted to Marianne, but before he can act, she is
smitten by the dashing Willoughby (Greg Wise), who rescues her from a mishap
and charms her off her feet. No sooner have these men appeared when they, too,
are called away to London - although not before Col. Brandon has suggested,
almost by osmosis, that he knows something unspeakable about his rival
secret is the sort of thing that would not be a secret long in the modern age,
but in Austen's time, such things were not spoken of, and Brandon might even
allow Marianne to make a disastrous marriage rather than tell her what her
maidenly ears should never hear. This maddening, intriguing inability to simply
blurt out the truth is indispensable to 19th century fiction, and I find it
enormously satisfying. Better the character who leaves us to guess at
unspeakable depths than one who bores us with confessional psychobabble.
men's departure to London leaves the three daughters and their mother facing an
indefinite future in their sewing circle. So when a kindly relative proposes a
visit to London, they seize upon it with desperation, and it is there that
secrets are revealed and alliances are smashed or formed. The screenplay, adapted
from Austen by Emma Thompson, takes wicked delight in setting up scenes that
would be farce in France a few generations later, but here still play as drama
(with an undertone of dry humor). The scene, for example, when the hapless
Edward (Grant) finds himself unexpectedly in the presence of two women, neither
one of whom should know about the other.
and Sensibility" has been directed by Ang Lee ("The Wedding
Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman"), who is from Taiwan, and whose
choice for this assignment has been questioned. Yet surely a modern
upper-middle-class Chinese person has more familiarity with Austen's varieties
of family ties and marriage responsibilities than a modern Briton. Romance is
only one of the reasons for marriage in Taiwan, where family alliances and
social class still play a role, while in modern Britain, as in America, young
lovers hardly seem to recall their own earlier years, let alone their family
traditions, if any. There are obvious parallels between this story of a mother
who wants to see her girls happily settled and the two earlier Ang Lee films,
which were about parents with much the same concerns.
and Sensibility" is an enjoyable film, and yet it left me somehow
unsatisfied. I liked the wit, I liked the charm of the actors, I enjoyed the
way that Rickman chewed his role as if he wanted to make it last, and the
tension when Grant's Edward is made to suffer - particularly since he appears
to be a cad only because he has tried to do the right thing. And I appreciated the
way Thompson's Elinor kept her character's face carefully expressionless as she
negotiated scenes in which some knew her secrets and others did not.
the film is not told as tightly or as well as "Persuasion," the
wonderful Austen adaptation released earlier in 1995. Austen was not yet a
great novelist when she wrote this story, and there is too much contrivance in
the way she dispatches her men to London when she is done with them. Edward is off-screen
so long that instead of growing concerned about his absence, we forget him.
production suffers from comparison with "Persuasion" because the
earlier film looked simpler and more authentic, and this one seems a little too
idealized; we want notepaper, not picture postcards. "Sense and
Sensibility" is entertaining and amusing, but "Persuasion" is
the one true Jane Austen lovers will prefer.