Friday 27 December 2019

Movie Review: Sense And Sensibility (1995)

A romantic drama with hints of humour, Sense And Sensibility adapts Jane Austen's novel with a breezy attitude and polished aesthetic.

It's late in the 18th century in England, and the death of Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) leaves his second wife Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her daughters Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and young Margaret on a much reduced income. The two older sisters are close friends but opposites in personality. Elinor is thoughtful, circumspect and getting dangerously close to being designated a spinster. Marianne is passionate, extroverted and believes in true love.

The Dashwoods have to give up their lavish home and most of their servants, and they relocate to the snug cottage of the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Middleton. In the process Elinor meets and starts to fall in "like" with the potentially wealthy but profession-less Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant). However, events conspire against their budding relationship.

Marianne's fortunes start to look up when she meets Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), who may be interested in her, but before he can act she is literally swept off her feet by the dashing John Willoughby (Greg Wise). But with money, class, long-held promises and family expectations at least as important as love, the path to marital happiness for the Dashwood sisters is nothing if not complicated.

First-time script writer Emma Thompson and producer Lindsay Doran wrestled with Austen's prose and simplified the book into cinematic cohesion. With foreign director Ang Lee providing an agile perspective, the trio produced a surprisingly accessible package. While the story remains largely obsessed with women finding husbands and not a single character appears to have a vocation worth mentioning, Sense And Sensibility creates a thriller out of mysteries of the heart.

The multiple and often overlapping possible love matches for Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are surprisingly engaging, and of course not a single relationship comes without layers of complexity. The affable Edward appears to be prevented from fully pursuing Elinor because she is penniless and his mother won't allow it, but a much deeper secret will be revealed to Elinor, shaking the very premise of their bond.

Marianne suffers deeper cuts. Her two suitors could not be more different. Colonel Brandon is calm, collected and almost too easy to overlook as unsuitably serene for her disposition. Willoughby by comparison is a romantic wild heart, and once he enters her life she can see no one else. However, both men have stunning backstories to be revealed at the appropriate time, and only after Marianne's young heart is exposed to the dangers of intense love and her health compromised.

And the warm core of the story is a tender relationship between Elinor and Marianne built on sisterly love, support and respect. With the men frequently absent to build up the mystery around their motivations, Elinor and Marianne harbour the one genuine, constant and palpable bond.

Thompson and Winslet bring the two sisters to life with superlative performances. Thompson internalizes the fortitude expected of an older sister but still shines in the few scenes where Elinor's emotional defences finally break. At just 19 years old and in one of her earliest roles, Winslet finds the unabashed expression of an arts-loving young woman willing to challenge the social conventions of her day.

Director Lee ensures the men do more by staying within themselves, both Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant conveying polite but complex characters with more going on in their lives than first meets the eye. Although most of the drama occurs indoors and through scenes of dialogue, Lee does include plenty of beautiful English scenery, and a few pivotal scenes are staged on stormy moors with Marianne's impulsive passions landing her in physical predicaments and in need of rescue.

Thompson's script measures out the reveals at appropriate intervals to keep the drama simmering, and enough secondary characters populate the margins to provide a base level of caustic humour and social commentary. The labyrinthian love entanglements provide avenues to expose gender, class and economic divides buffeting the pursuit of happiness.

For the Dashwood girls finding a suitable man is almost the easy part. Not immune from being victimized, the sisters will build their true character by deftly navigating around societal expectations, using Sense And Sensibility to expose true intentions.

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