Sense and Sensibility: Thompson’s Triumph

LOSE YOUR HEART AND COME TO YOUR SENSES.

On a November day in 1993, Emma Thompson came rushing over to her friend Stephen Fry. She was in the middle of writing her screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s ”Sense and Sensibility”, but the file had become corrupted. Her work had been rescued, but all the formatting was lost and since Thompson knew that Fry was a Mac nerd she figured that he could get the script back to shape. He did, and was properly thanked in the end credits of the picture.

Thompson told Fry that she wanted their friend Hugh Laurie to play Colonel Brandon, which they both agreed would be perfect. Sadly, Fry learned that there wasn’t a part for him. And Laurie was only cast in a smaller role. Well, you can’t win them all.

Sense and Sensibility takes place in the early 1800s, where the death of Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) brings great problems for his second wife (Gemma Jones) and three daughters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret (Thompson, Kate Winslet, Emilie François). Mr. Dashwood asks his son from the first marriage, John (James Fleet), to care for them, but he’s persuaded by his greedy wife Fanny (Harriet Walter) to not give them anything. Soon, John and Fanny take over the house and the Dashwood ladies look for somewhere else to live. They’re offered a small cottage house on Sir John Middleton’s (Robert Hardy) estate, where they create a new life. After Mr. Dashwood’s death, new men make appearances, including Fanny’s brother Edward (Hugh Grant) who forms a close friendship with Elinor; Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), a stiff, older man who becomes interested in Marianne; and John Willoughby (Greg Wise) who sweeps Marianne off her feet.

Starting a trend
This was the film that started a Jane Austen trend in the 1990s and it remains one of the best romantic dramas from the period. Producer Lindsay Doran had loved ”Sense and Sensibility” ever since she was a young woman and vowed to turn it into a movie. She came across comedy skits that Emma Thompson had written for British television in the late 1980s and thought her style would fit an adaptation of Austen’s novel perfectly. A good example of women empowering other women; Thompson had never written a screenplay, but was given the opportunity to labor over it while working as an actress.

What she ultimately presented to Doran was not a vanity project, but a smart adaptation that modernized the dialogue, simplifying it without losing Austen’s sense of humor and elegance. Doran and Thompson worked hard on how to juggle the three romances throughout the story and they’ve done a good job; the mystery behind Willoughby maintains our attention, the wooden yet charming demeanor of Colonel Brandon could only have been conveyed through Rickman (well, maybe Laurie…), and the romance between Elinor and Edward is irresistibly sweet. Thompson and Winslet are very effective as two different sisters, the latter giving a heartbreakingly girlish performance.

Love comes in many shapes in this film, looking foolish and immature at times, deep and unavoidable at other times. Among all these wonderful actors, I adored Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs. Jennings, acting in her old age as an incorrigibly nosy, giggling matchmaker.

Hiring Ang Lee as director turned out to be another excellent find. Even if he didn’t know his Austen, he could spot what mattered in the story and had a foreigner’s eye for what’s deliciously English, a visual impression that a top team of technical talents helped create. This is sheer beauty, with rolling green hills, coastline cliffs, Patrick Doyle’s infectious music score and carefully researched costume design, mirroring the social scene of the era.

Sense and Sensibility 1995-U.S. 135 min. Color. Produced by Lindsay Doran. Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay: Emma Thompson. Novel: Jane Austen. Cinematography: Michael Coulter. Music: Patrick Doyle. Costume Design: Jenny Beavan, John Bright. Cast: Emma Thompson (Elinor Dashwood), Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon), Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood), Hugh Grant, James Fleet, Harriet Walter… Robert Hardy, Imelda Staunton, Hugh Laurie, Tom Wilkinson.

Trivia: Co-executive produced by Sydney Pollack. Filmed for television in 1971, 1981 and 2008.

Oscar: Best Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Film, Actress (Thompson), Supporting Actress (Winslet). Berlin: Golden Bear. 

Last word: “I’ve read so much literature from that period that I’m slightly more versed in that language than I am in the modern day. So writing Austen – I actually didn’t find that challenging. I mean, as I was growing up there was an internal moral pugilism going on in my head that was influenced by the writing of Austen and George Eliot, but also Henry James, Edith Wharton, and the Brontës. There was this battle going on inside where I was trying to be wild and free, and I had one voice going, ‘You slut. You’ll never be any good. You’re morally degenerate.’ And another going, ‘Live! Live! You have to live!'” (Thompson, Vulture)

 

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