Sense and Sensibility Review


In high school English class, I was the kid who usually didn’t bother reading the assigned novels. Victorian-style lit wasn’t really my thing. Unfortunately for me, filmmakers seem to love these types of stories. We’ve got plenty screen interpretations of Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, and Jane Eyre (with another of the latter coming early next year), and for the most part, I find them a bit repetitive and dull. So I was completely caught off guard by Ang Lee’s 1995 interpretation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, one of the most charming films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the epitome of what an English period piece should be—it looks beautiful, is extremely well-acted, and really touches your heart.

In the English countryside of old, the Dashwood family is met with an unexpected change in lifestyle. Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson, in a very brief appearance) has passed away, leaving his second wife (Gemma Jones) and their three daughters with nothing (rules of inheritance prevented Mr. Dashwood from divvying up his estate more equally). The eldest daughter, Elinor (Emma Thompson), is destined to be a spinster. She takes care of the rest of the family and keeps her emotions bottled up. The middle daughter is Marianne (Kate Winslet), and she’s Elinor’s polar opposite. She’s driven by passion, and can think of nothing more romantic than dying for true love. As they transition from their comfortable life to one more modest, they meet a number of dashing young men. Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), a humble but drifting young man, attracts the guarded attention of Elinor. Colonel Christopher Brandon (Alan Rickman) is smitten with Marianne from the moment he lays eyes on her, but her heart belongs wholly to John Willoughby (Greg Wise).

Sense and Sensibility is reportedly one of Austen’s weakest books (I can’t attest to that, having never read it), but you wouldn’t know it from the nearly flawless script turned in by none other than Emma Thompson. She won an Oscar for her writing, which is full of clever humor, clear and well-developed character arcs, and a restrained, but beautiful emotional element that elevates the material from very good to sensational.

Of course, it would all be for naught if the performances didn’t back up the great writing, and fortunately, there’s not a weak link in the cast. Emma Thompson is quiet but very arresting as Elinor. She’s as meek as any heroine I’ve ever seen, but she earns our sympathy quite easily. Kate Winslet earned her first Oscar nomination for her very showy work as Marianne. This is the kind of role that must be a young actress’ dream. All of her emotions are extremes—she’s either blissfully happy or deeply depressed throughout most of the film. And with such mild-mannered characters surrounding her, she stands out as the most memorable by a mile.

The supporting actors and actresses are just as good as these two women. Alan Rickman has a role not unlike that of Emma Thompson. He’s very soft-spoken and polite, which doesn’t make him jump off the screen, but we care about him and we want him to find the love he yearns for. Hugh Grant was miscast, I think, but he doesn’t to a bad job. He’s just not as charismatic as you’d expect him to be (though he does what the role requires of him). Finally, there’s Greg Wise, an actor I’m unfamiliar with otherwise, but his character proves to be a smart match for Marianne in terms of temperament and sensibility.

It goes without saying that the set designs and costumes are gorgeous. The music is always spot-on, and the cinematography is sweeping and beautiful. Ang Lee doesn’t know how to construct a bad film (even The Hulk was interesting visually), and while this one might not match his true masterpiece, Brokeback Mountain, in terms of technical prowess, it’s still a feast for the eyes and ears.

In what I’d call a pretty weak Oscar year, it’s no surprise this film was a major player. It lost out to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart in the two biggest categories, but it was well-represented elsewhere, including Adapted Screenplay. Lee and Thompson should be commended for making such an accessible period piece—one that’s light but very emotionally engaging.

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