Friday, May 5, 2017

Movie Review - Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility
Based on the book by Jane Austen
Release Date: December 13th, 1995
Starring: Tom Wilkinson, James Fleet, Harriet Walter, Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, Emilie Fran├žois, Gemma Jones, Hugh Grant, Robert Hardy, Elizabeth Spriggs, Alan Rickman, Greg Wise, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Laurie, Imogen Stubbs, Allan Mitchell, Richard Lumsden, Lone Vidahl, and Oliver Ford Davies
Rating: ★★★★
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John Dashwood is implored by his father while dying to care for his stepmother and three stepsisters due to inheritance law precluding them from his estate. John is quickly talked out of this necessary kindness by his unscrupulous wife Fanny who quickly descends on the mourning Dashwood women to take claim of her new home and count the silver. Elinor is trying to be practical while her younger sister Marianne is beside herself with grief while their youngest sister Margaret has opted to just hide. Their mother would quickly remove them from this toxic environment if it wasn't for the arrival of Fanny's brother Edward who helps with Margaret and forms an instant attachment to Elinor. Fanny abhors this connection and makes it clear to Mrs. Dashwood that her whole family has specific plans for dear Edward and that an unadvantageous match would lead to his being cut out of any of his prospects. Mrs. Dashwood hastily accepts the kind offer of her cousin, Sir John Middleton, to come and live at a cottage on his estate in Devonshire. There the four women are soon surrounded by a society that is very interested in them, especially a Colonel Brandon who only has eyes for Marianne. Sir John's mother-in-law makes it her sacred duty to tease the young girls and to find them advantageous matches. But both Elinor's and Marianne's hearts are irrevocably gone long before Mrs. Jennings has any say. Elinor still pines for Edward and Marianne, Marianne has met the man of her dreams in Willoughby, a romantic and lover of Shakespearean sonnets like herself. But the course of true love never runs smooth. Willoughby leaves Devonshire for London and Edward is secretly engaged to a young cousin of Mrs. Jennings, Lucy, whom his family will surely object to more than Elinor. Everything comes to a head on a trip to London. Will their hearts ever be mended or are they forever to be bruised and battered and broken?

My mom likes to say that when we went to see Sense and Sensibility in the movie theater there wasn't a dry eye in the house. While I do remember moderate sniffles, it can't compare to the copious crowd weeping of Hamilton which I recently experienced and freely admit I was a large contributor of. Of all Emma Thompson's films for some reason Sense and Sensibility is the one I return to the least, well aside from Love Actually, but we shall not go into my hatred of that film here despite how many cast similarities there are. I've never really wondered about this until I rewatched Sense and Sensibility after rereading the book and I think I've put my finger on it. While there's an intimacy to the books of Austen they are no means small, they encompass the whole of human emotion and what it is to be a woman. Yet with the way this adaptation was filmed the story feels small, almost trifling. The time constrictions coupled with what this necessitates makes the story of Elinor and Marianne somehow less. What struck me is having not seen it in a few years it's weird because despite the cast it feels like a low budget costume drama not a film up for copious academy awards. But then again on the heels of this production the Pride and Prejudice miniseries staring Colin Firth issued in a new era for the costume drama. They have exploded on television in the last twenty plus years and with advancements in cinematography and locations and costumes, this just feels limited and at times claustrophobic. There are too many close-ups and no sweeping vistas that people, like me, who regularly watch shows like Poldark expect. Instead we're just stuck with a lot of sheep.

When I was rereading the book, as I mentioned in that review, I was struck by how Colonel Brandon, while considered old, is actually younger than me. So when approaching the film again after so many years I couldn't help but think, was Emma Thompson perhaps too old to play the role of Elinor being in fact the "old" age of Colonel Brandon in real life? Did she in fact need a flannel waistcoat herself? Or flannel underthings? But the truth is I should never doubt Emma Thompson. NEVER. Having wrote the screenplay she knew exactly what to bring and when and you never once think of her age, which astounded me as she was working against my prejudice. In fact with her performance there are just rankings of what was best. What I most loved wasn't so much in her reserve and in being stalwart, what was amazing is at which points she decided to break that reserve and tap into her reservoir of emotion. Because in the book there are key scenes where Elinor loses her calm and has to regain it, times when I'm not 100% sure work for her character, therefore the changes that Thompson instigated in this instance were perfect. Elinor breaks only twice, once when she's at Marianne's sickbed and once again when she realizes that Edward is free to declare his feelings for her. Two perfect moments, because these are the two people in the world she can't life without. And as for when Edward declares himself? Just watch how Thompson turns her hysterics into tears of joy and you will be in no doubt as to why she was nominated as "Best Actress" in 1996 for this movie. Though I would request she NEVER wears that checked dress again, it looks like the bedsheets from Steve Harrington's bed on Stranger Things.

Though there are still weird omissions and rejiggering that Thompson did in her adaptation that I'm not quite sure of. Yes, there's changes necessitated by time and the narrative being streamlined to fit into a little over two hours of screen time. So therefore I can forgive Lady Middleton being sent swiftly to her grave and Lucy using the kindness of Mrs. Jennings to expedite her own journey to London, though it's entirely straining credulity to believe that Elinor and Lucy would discuss Edward on that carriage ride! Mrs. Jennings has a nose for gossip! Edward not visiting Barton until the end makes a little less since, but still works, but then there's the changes that didn't leave me scratching my head by yelling on the TV that the change made NO SENSE! My biggest problem was of Lucy not having a sister. This is a BIG hurdle. Why? Because Lucy is cunning. The ONLY reason in the book that her secret engagement to Edward is revealed is because her sister, thinking that she's fully one over the whole Ferrars family, blurts out at breakfast that Lucy and Edward are engaged. Both the film's version and the book's version have an equally dramatic reaction on Fanny's part. But there is no way that Lucy would have voluntarily told Fanny, no matter the encouragement, if Lucy wasn't 100% sure of everything. This utterly changes Lucy's character and you can't quite rectify who she is in the movie with the remnants of that cunning bitch from the book. Why would she manipulate Elinor so? Why would she swap Edward for Robert? She's made too nice. The only way she works as a character is by having her sister as the other half, much like Elinor needs Marianne!

Yet I can not be so cruel as to say that all the changes were negative. The way they were able to subtly show the Dashwood's penury through them not being able to purchase new clothes for mourning or always lamenting the lack of sugar and beef perfectly sums up their plight to a modern audience, even if the savvy reader will notice that Thompson actually halved their income. But where Thompson's adaptation soars is in actually giving Margaret purpose. Margaret as the youngest Dashwood is used to affect three times in the novel, once to blurt out to Mrs. Jennings about Elinor's love of Edward, once to seek help when Marianne falls and Willoughby rescues her, and finally to see Willoughby ask for a lock of Marianne's hair. Other than these scenes she is a nonentity, she doesn't matter, and in fact once her elder sisters traipse off to London she is maybe mentioned once or twice more. Whereas Thompson makes her a fully fledged character who loves the idea of travel and pours over an atlas for hours. She is an independent young woman of spirit who wants to be a pirate. She encompasses the future of what women can be within this limited time period. In fact the expansion of Margaret's character has so inspired fans that other writers, like Beth Deitchman in her lovely Regency Magic book Margaret Dashwood and the Enchanted Atlas, has taken Thompson's infusion of Margaret with an actual personality as a jumping off point for her reinterpretation of Austen's world. What's more is that Margaret's character helps to build up the character of Edward, who, let's face it, is a little lacking as Austen wrote him. With Edward taking an interest in Margaret we can see why Elinor falls for him with all his good and laudable qualities.

But the majority of Edward's faults are fixed in the casting of Hugh Grant. In fact, the combined casting of Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman make up for any defects these characters had as they were originally written. Because really, we've forgiven Hugh Grant for far more than lack of character over the years with him just breaking out that trademark sheepish grin while that floppy lock of hair falls over his eyes. The lack of depth, the engagement to Lucy, the reticence, are all washed away because seriously people, that grin, that stammer, it's like this character was written for Hugh to bring to life because he and the character become one. And as for all those fans out there who repeatedly say that yes the Colonel is a good man but how could Marianne ever love again after Willoughby? Firstly, Willoughby is scum, he didn't even take Marianne secretly home in this version! But more that that, who wouldn't melt to have Alan Rickman look at them like that? When he first sees Marianne playing the piano, thankfully sweetly if artlessly actually sung by Kate Winslet, you are just WAITING for the two of them to get together. But the nail in the coffin of Rickman's casting? His melodious voice. Seriously, I don't think there is anyone who has that kind of liquid voice that can be seductive but also menacing when need be. How I wish Thompson had included the duel just to hear him call Willoughby out! But the reason I bring up his voice is that Marianne is very much into the spirit, the animation one brings when reading aloud, and Edward is found very lacking. How could Rickman EVER be found lacking on this score? It was a foregone conclusion, not just that he'd win the girl, but that Thompson would throw in a scene of him reading to his beloved Marianne. So while there are some things I scratch my head about I should just sit back and listen to Alan Rickman's voice.

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