“I’ve had this pressing on me without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature,” exclaims Elinor Dashwood.
I’ve been caught in this gravitational pull watching Jane Austin film adaptations during our current privation. I have found great consolation and sustenance in them, and recently I started to understand my fascination. In “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), there’s the death of Henry Dashwood, and as required by law, he leaves his property to his son, John, by the first marriage. This means that the lives of his second wife and three daughters — Elinor, Marianne and Margaret — are abruptly in upheaval. They’re displaced from their home – and placed in a form of limbo – having to deal with the consequences of sudden insolvency. A good marriage is the only solution to having some control over their lives back again – to regaining a sense of purpose and to have the means to travel. I find a kinship to their assessment of love – and the need of family to get you through ambiguous times.
There’s a big change in the Dashwood family’s class status. The greedy wife of the new heir, Fanny makes him reduce the financial compensation his father-in-law had requested before he died. She installs her husband and herself in the large home – forcing the Dashwoods to find more modest accommodations. They get an offer of a cottage on the property of their cousin Sir John Middleton. Before their departure, Fanny’s brother – Edgar – pays a visit, and Elinor is quite taken with him and sees the possibility of an arrangement that might remedy her situation. Those hopes are squelched by Fanny suggesting that John’s inheritance would be jeopardized if he marries someone of no importance and no money.
Actress Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay—won the Oscar for her adaptation, in fact—and it’s a lively – very funny, and touching adaptation. It’s full of dual forces at play. The most important is the contrast between the two main sisters’ philosophies – Elinor representing restraint and Marianne – spontaneity and joie de vivre. The younger sister (embodied by an exuberant pre-“Titanic” Kate Winslet) falls quickly for the dashing John Willoughby – throwing caution to the wind. “Marianne does not approve of hiding her emotions. In fact her romantic prejudices have the unfortunate tendency to set propriety at naught,” says Elinor about her sibling. Their dual fates will have plenty of twists and turns – and discoveries on their ways to romance and fulfillment. It is our witnessing of their personal growth and maturing that is so rewarding.
Ang Lee was hired to direct, and his deep connection to the material is palpable. The Taiwanese American, two-time Academy Award-winner for Best Director started his career with critically acclaimed films that dealt with the push and pull between tradition and modern ways of thinking, “Pushing Hands” (1991), “The Wedding Banquet” (1993), and “Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). That aspect is felt in “Sense and Sensibility” as the women try to forge their paths through a society with strict expectations. He adds subtle symbolism to his composition. Marianne will play the piano forte and sing a few times. We will grow to associate her with music. Her impetuousness will also be shown by her being photographed outdoors and twice caught in a storm. In contrast, Elinor is always framed by doorways – windows – and seated by a window seat. Her world is more contained. There’s a spectacular scene in which Elinor finds out that Edward will not be coming to visit. Marianne and Margaret walk outside of the house – the wind is seen and heard moving curtains. The camera will pan to Elinor being consoled by her mother and they are framed by the doorway. The camera will pull back from them – and the wind from the outside world will once again stir the curtains.
The ensemble is superb. It’s so refreshing not to see Alan Rickman play a villain. He’s so thoughtful and caring as the Colonel Brandon who quietly pines and look after Marianne. Hugh Grant is nuanced and effective as Edward. Kate Winslet who was nominated for Best Supporting actress is delightful. Emma Thompson as Elinor – keeps all her emotions in check until the very last moment – and it’s both a comical moment as well as so moving. Gemma Jones, Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton all make an impression. This movie makes for such good company.
Marianne: “Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honour and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?”
Elinor: “What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering?”
Available to stream on Starz (with subscription and via Hulu and Amazon Prime via subscription,) DIRECTV and Sling TV. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, FandangoNOW, Redbox, Apple TV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Emma Thompson
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring: Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant
Ang Lee on Bringing “Sense and Sensibility” to the Screen
“The Wedding Banquet” was seen by the future producers of “Sense and Sensibility,” and because of that film, somehow they thought I’d be a good candidate to adapt Jane Austen…But these producers approached with “Sense,” and I couldn’t decide whether to do it or not; for one thing the budget was $16 million. I had never handled that kind of money. And also, I had never done a period piece. But I just couldn’t refuse the temptation to work with Emma Thompson. I read the script [written by Thompson] and despite my English being less fluent at the time, I felt I knew it by heart, that by its nature it was very close to what I do. So I took the challenge, and I went to England. I was very scared. I spoke broken English, and there was Jane Austen. I had to work with a top-of-the-line English cast and crew, with Oxforders, Royal Shakespeareans—just a top-notch cast and crew… (dga.org) …To me, “Sense & Sensibility” is not about one side that is sense and the other that’s sensibility; to me it’s the sensible understanding of what sensibility is about. When I realised that, it really gripped my heart. I knew I could do it…(harpersbazaar.com)
Casting Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood
…her agent sent her to Lindsay Doran, the producer of “Sense and Sensibility,” to read for the small but pivotal role of Lucy Steele… “When Kate walked in, not even having read the book or the script, I just assumed that she had been sent in to read for Marianne,” Ms. Doran recalled. “So I sat there selling her on it, telling her all about the script, the character, and she was saying: ‘This sounds just like me. This is exactly who I want to play.’ ” When Ms. Winslet read with Ms. Thompson, Ms. Doran said, “She knew every scene by heart, and she gave it everything she had. She broke down in the reading almost exactly the way she breaks down in the film.” Ms. Thompson remembers the reading as well. “We thought Marianne was going to be the most difficult person to cast, and then Kate walked in,” she said. “At the end of the interview she turned her great, headlamp eyes on me and said: ‘I wish you would let me do this. I know how to play her.’ When she left, I said: “That’s Marianne. No question.’ ” Mr. Lee agreed, but he admits he was worried about the way Ms. Winslet had attacked her role in “Heavenly Creatures.” “I wanted the same passion, but I tried to reduce that craziness and try to bring grace,” Mr. Lee said. “She is a very bold-headed type of actress. I tried to get her to relax a little.” The director prescribed tai chi exercises and a reading list of Austen-era Gothic novels and poetry. And he asked Ms. Winslet to report back to him on what she had learned. The actress also worked with a piano teacher until she could carry off performances of Marianne’s favorite melancholy tunes. (Though she can sing, as she demonstrated in “Heavenly Creatures,” her character’s singing voice was later dubbed by a professional singer.) Beyond assuming Marianne’s musical gifts, there was the challenge of acting opposite Ms. Thompson. “It’s very hard to put somebody beside Emma,” Mr. Lee said. “You want to feel the balance between the two sisters. Sometimes young actors use too much strength and end up giving weaker performances. It was a very fulfilling experience as a director to see Kate blossom. She came a long way and progressed so much.” (nytimes.com)
About Actor and Screenwriter Emma Thompson
Thompson, the daughter of actors Eric Thompson and Phyllida Law, grew up in a theatrical household…While studying English literature at the University of Cambridge, she performed with the comedy troupe Footlights. Soon after graduating in 1980, she ventured into drama, distinguishing herself opposite Kenneth Branagh in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s television miniseries “Fortunes of War” (1987). The couple became frequent collaborators and married in 1989 (divorced 1995). Thompson starred with Branagh in “Henry V” (1989), which he directed, and followed with two more Branagh-directed films, the thriller “Dead Again” (1991), in which the couple played dual roles, and the sentimental comedy “Peter’s Friends” (1992). In 1992 Thompson portrayed a pragmatic bohemian who befriends a dying woman and later marries her widower (played by Anthony Hopkins) in the screen adaptation of E.M. Forster’s “Howards End.” For her performance, Thompson won both an Academy Award and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award for best actress. In 1993 she again starred opposite Branagh, in a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play “Much Ado About Nothing” in which she played Beatrice…That year Thompson also played a 1930s housekeeper in “The Remains of the Day.” In 1995 Thompson wrote and starred in “Sense and Sensibility,” based on Jane Austen’s novel. The film was a critical and commercial success, and Thompson won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay and a BAFTA Award for best actress. She also later married (2003) co-star Greg Wise. In 2001 Thompson wrote the script for and starred in the television adaptation of the stage drama “Wit,” which centres on a college professor with terminal cancer. In the television miniseries “Angels in America” (2003), based on Tony Kushner’s play about AIDS in the 1980s, she played a homeless woman.
Thompson’s later work included such notable films as “Love Actually” (2003), “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006), and several film adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s popular “Harry Potter” series. In 2008 she starred in “Brideshead Revisited,” based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel, and in “Last Chance Harvey,” a romantic comedy set in London. The following year she appeared in two films set in 1960s England: the coming-of-age drama “An Education,” in which she portrayed a boarding-school headmistress, and the rock-and-roll-themed comedy “Pirate Radio.” In the animated “Brave” (2012), Thompson provided the voice of a Scottish queen. She was acclaimed for her steely, sympathetic depiction of “Mary Poppins” (1934) author P.L. Travers in “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013). She then narrated the family drama “Men, Women & Children” (2014) and played the wife of author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) in a 2015 screen adaptation of his 1998 memoir “A Walk in the Woods.” Her credits from 2017 included “Beauty and the Beast,” a remake of the Disney classic, and “The Meyerowitz Stories” (New and Selected), wherein she gave a comical performance as the wife of a sculptor (Dustin Hoffman). That year Thompson also garnered critical acclaim for “The Children Act,” in which she played a judge contending with a marital crisis as she decides a case concerning a teenager refusing a blood transfusion on religious grounds. Thompson then portrayed Goneril, one of King Lear’s treacherous daughters, in a televised adaptation of Shakespeare’s play and the British prime minister in the spy spoof “Johnny English Strikes Again” (both 2018). Her credits from 2019 included the stop-motion animated comedy “Missing Link,” in which she provided the voice of a yeti elder. That year she also starred as a talk show host who hires a woman of colour (Mindy Kaling) to diversify her all-white-male writing team in “Late Night.” Thompson later lent her voice to the family comedy “Dolittle” (2020). Thompson resumed her screenwriting career with the family film “Nanny McPhee” (2005), adapted from a series of books by Christianna Brand, and played the titular role, a governess with magical powers. She wrote and starred in the sequel, “Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang” (2010; U.S. title “Nanny McPhee Returns”) as well. Thompson also wrote the screenplay for “Effie Gray” (2014), an examination of the marriage of art critic John Ruskin; she appeared in the film in a supporting role. Thompson was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2018. (britannica.com) Thompson recently wrote and acted in the 2019 film, “Last Christmas.”
About Director Ang Lee
Born in 1954 in Pingtung, Taiwan, Ang Lee has become one of today’s greatest contemporary filmmakers. Ang graduated from the National Taiwan College of Arts in 1975 and then came to the U.S. to receive a B.F.A. Degree in Theatre/Theater Direction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a Masters Degree in Film Production at New York University. At NYU, he served as Assistant Director on Spike Lee’s student film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. After Lee wrote a couple of screenplays, he eventually appeared on the film scene with Pushing Hands, a dramatic-comedy reflecting on generational conflicts and cultural adaptation, centering on the metaphor of the grandfather’s Tai-Chi technique of “Pushing Hands”. The Wedding Banquet was Lee’s next film, an exploration of cultural and generational conflicts through a homosexual Taiwanese man who feigns a marriage in order to satisfy the traditional demands of his Taiwanese parents. It garnered Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, and won a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The third movie in his trilogy of Taiwanese-Culture/Generation films, all of them featuring his patriarch figure Sihung Lung, was Eat Drink Man Woman, which received a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination. Lee followed this with Sense and Sensibility, his first Hollywood-mainstream movie. It acquired a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and won Best Adapted Screenplay, for the film’s screenwriter and lead actress, Emma Thompson. Lee was also voted the year’s Best Director by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle. Lee and frequent collaborator James Schamus next filmed The Ice Storm, an adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel involving 1970s New England suburbia. The movie acquired the 1997 Best Screenplay at Cannes for screenwriter James Schamus, among other accolades. The Civil War drama Ride with the Devil soon followed and received critical praise, but it was Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that is considered one of his greatest works, a sprawling period film and martial-arts epic that dealt with love, loyalty and loss. It swept the Oscar nominations, eventually winning Best Foreign Language Film, as well as Best Director at the Golden Globes, and became the highest grossing foreign-language film ever released in America. Lee then filmed the comic-book adaptation, Hulk – an elegantly and skillfully made film with nice action scenes. Lee has also shot a short film – Chosen (aka Hire, The Chosen) – and most recently won the 2005 Best Director Academy Award for Brokeback Mountain, a film based on a short story by Annie Proulx. In 2012 Lee directed Life of Pi which earned 11 Academy Award nominations and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Director. In 2013 Ang Lee was selected as a member of the main competition jury at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. (tisch.nyu.edu)