January 19, 1996 in Seven

‘Sense’ A Heartfelt Telling Of Rich Jane Austen Tale

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Welcome to the ongoing Jane Austen film festival.

“Sense and Sensibility,” which opens today, is the most recent of three Austen adaptations to play Spokane over the past month. The Magic Lantern gave us “Persuasion,” while television’s A&E; channel broadcast the six-hour miniseries version of “Pride and Prejudice.”

All are superb productions and, coming from the pen of the same early 19th century British novelist, all are understandably similar.

There’s the family of limited social connection (if not exaggerated social pretensions) living in reduced circumstances. There are the young women with conspicuous lack of dowry. There are the embarrassing relatives, inveterate snoops, social-climbers and maddening would-be matchmakers.

There are the ever-present cads. But don’t forget the gallant men of grim demeanor whose noble hearts have been woefully wounded. There are the parties, gluttonous English breakfasts and gloriously green English estates.

Finally, there are the heartbreaks and, of course, the happy endings.

Using variations on the above literary set-pieces, Austen’s art was in re-examining the same themes again and again, exposing pomposity, knavery and, especially, institutional sexism while allowing goodness and true love to carry the day.

Except for her keen ability to see her fictional landscapes with an eye both for satire and entertainment, Austen could have been writing her day’s equivalent of the Harlequin Romance. But her achievement was to have it both ways. To Austen, entertainment was art and vice versa.

The same is true with these three most recent films. In “Sense and Sensibility” especially, Austen’s themes carry from page to big screen with surprising ease. Working from an adaptation written by Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson, director Ang Lee (“Eat Drink Man Woman”) has created a film that is as accessible to a contemporary audience as it is worthy of study by an Austen scholar.

Thompson’s screenplay by necessity doesn’t include every aspect of Austen’s book, but it does stay true to Austen’s intent.

The film involves the family Dashwood, which, upon the death of Mr. Dashwood, is left dependent upon the dead man’s elder son from his first marriage. (According to Austen, the harsh inheritance laws of the day could, and sometimes did, result in a wife’s disenfranchisement).

The Dashwood women - mother (Gemma Jones), elder daughter Elinor (Thompson), middle daughter Marianne (Kate Winslet) and youngest daughter Margaret (Emile Francois) - are forced to rely on the rightful heir and his connivingly greedy wife Fanny (Harriet Walter).

Realizing that they are not wanted, the Dashwoods accept an offer to live elsewhere. And with dependable Elinor watching the family books, they manage gracefully to adapt downward. Clearly, it is Elinor who has the sense of Austen’s title, while spirited Marianne has the sensibility. The course of Austen’s story is to have each develop a bit of the other’s foremost quality.

They do so, naturally, through heartbreak. Elinor forms a connection with Fanny’s brother, Edward (Hugh Grant), but she is left disappointed when he is hustled off to London by his disapproving sister.

Marianne, meanwhile, attracts the attentions of the middle-age Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman), an honorable man with a sad and secretive past. But she is drawn to the more dramatically intense Willoughby (Greg Wise), who literally rides to her rescue in their very first meeting.

Yet Marianne, too, is abandoned when the lure of a rich woman attracts Willoughby’s eye.

These waylaid romances occur in the typical Austen bustle of everyday life, which includes long walks, card games, balls, meals, carriage rides, musical interludes, reading sessions, etc. Which is to Austen’s point: There often is so much happening, much of it between people whose relationships are hard to figure out, that the films serve more as a mirror of the overall world as she saw it than simply the ups and downs of individual romance.

As a director, Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee might have seemed a curious choice for such a decidedly British production. But stories of relationships are universal, and Lee ends up serving Austen well. In scene after scene, especially one shot overhead of Thompson sitting in a stairwell, Lee imbues his film with the understanding of a born storyteller.

Of course, he has a wondrous cast to work with. Thompson is the Oscar winner here, but her work is matched by Winslet, who was last seen as a teen murderer in the film “Heavenly Creatures.” Grant, too, is used well as Lee incorporates the actor’s stuttering manners into Edward’s own discomfort.

But what most sets “Sense and Sensibility” apart from “Persuasion,” and even “Pride and Prejudice,” is its spirit. Lee allows his characters ample room to work, so that we cringe even as the Dashwood girls do when a friendly busybody (Elizabeth Spriggs) embarrasses them endlessly.

It is that same feeling of freedom that works so well when, as Elinor finally emerges from her self-imposed sense of control, her outburst of tears provides the catharsis that, by then, we so desperately need.

And you won’t need a particularly acute sensibility to see the sense in that.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Sense and Sensibility” **** Location: Newport and Magic Lantern cinemas Credits: Directed by Ang Lee from a screenplay by Emma Thompson; starring Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Gemma Jones, Greg Wise, Elizabeth Spriggs and Hugh Laurie Running time: 2:15 Rating: PG

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Sense and Sensibility:” Patricia Bibby/Associated Press: This is one of those rare films that seems to be magnificent and grand in scale, even though it concerns itself with the smallest flutters of the heart and the magic and mystery of its beating. Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Jane Austen’s novels begin with money and end with love. Which is why they are enjoying such a resurgence today, when so much tends to begin with love and end with money. Certainly Austen is coming up aces at the movies. Already we’ve had a wonderful “Persuasion,” and Emma Thompson’s new film of Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” is no less glorious. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: You might think you know what to expect from “Sense and Sensibility”: tasteful, British, reserved, British, humorless, British. You’ve got another think coming. “Sense and Sensibility” is big-hearted, funny, romantic and one of the best movies of the year. Jackie Potts/Miami Herald: As a comedy of manners, “Sense and Sensibility” has been called Austen’s crudest work - with characters too obvious and the geometry too predictable. But on screen, the book’s flaws are barely perceptible. Janet Maslin/New York Times: In a banner year for movie-business mergers, one of the best-conceived collaborations takes place not in the boardroom but on the screen. The grandly entertaining “Sense and Sensibility” brings together Hollywood’s posthumous darling, Jane Austen, with Ang Lee, the director whose “Eat Drink Man Woman” had the irresistible good sense to combine Austen-like acuity with Chinese food. Bob Fenster/The Arizona Republic: The only off-note in the cast is struck by Hugh Grant, as a reluctant suitor. Grant uses the same stammering bumbler routine that worked in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” then grew tiresome by “Nine Months.” Jack Mathews/Newsday: There isn’t a missed beat in any performance in the film.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story: 1. “Sense and Sensibility” **** Location: Newport and Magic Lantern cinemas Credits: Directed by Ang Lee from a screenplay by Emma Thompson; starring Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Gemma Jones, Greg Wise, Elizabeth Spriggs and Hugh Laurie Running time: 2:15 Rating: PG

2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Sense and Sensibility:” Patricia Bibby/Associated Press: This is one of those rare films that seems to be magnificent and grand in scale, even though it concerns itself with the smallest flutters of the heart and the magic and mystery of its beating. Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Jane Austen’s novels begin with money and end with love. Which is why they are enjoying such a resurgence today, when so much tends to begin with love and end with money. Certainly Austen is coming up aces at the movies. Already we’ve had a wonderful “Persuasion,” and Emma Thompson’s new film of Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” is no less glorious. Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: You might think you know what to expect from “Sense and Sensibility”: tasteful, British, reserved, British, humorless, British. You’ve got another think coming. “Sense and Sensibility” is big-hearted, funny, romantic and one of the best movies of the year. Jackie Potts/Miami Herald: As a comedy of manners, “Sense and Sensibility” has been called Austen’s crudest work - with characters too obvious and the geometry too predictable. But on screen, the book’s flaws are barely perceptible. Janet Maslin/New York Times: In a banner year for movie-business mergers, one of the best-conceived collaborations takes place not in the boardroom but on the screen. The grandly entertaining “Sense and Sensibility” brings together Hollywood’s posthumous darling, Jane Austen, with Ang Lee, the director whose “Eat Drink Man Woman” had the irresistible good sense to combine Austen-like acuity with Chinese food. Bob Fenster/The Arizona Republic: The only off-note in the cast is struck by Hugh Grant, as a reluctant suitor. Grant uses the same stammering bumbler routine that worked in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” then grew tiresome by “Nine Months.” Jack Mathews/Newsday: There isn’t a missed beat in any performance in the film.

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