Confirming her status as the most prolific source of good film material in 1995, Jane Austen scores the hat trick with “Sense and Sensibility,” a witty and rollicking adaptation of the author’s first novel. With the very loose “Emma” update “Clueless” and “Persuasion” having already provided so much pleasure, the Austen party continues with this classy, entirely enjoyable comic melodrama that is bound to be so well received that it should easily surpass the best B.O. results of Merchant Ivory and perhaps match its distrib’s “Little Women” from a year ago.
Cultural pundits may debate the reasons for Austen’s sudden ascendancy after decades of neglect by Hollywood (“Pride and Prejudice,” in 1940, was the last bigscreen adaptation, although a straight version of “Emma” is on the way, as is a BBC “P&P”), but it no doubt has something to do with strong stories, rich characters and astute class observations. Perhaps more surprising than Austen’s resurgent popularity, however, is the unexpected combination of talents that has made “Sense and Sensibility” such a treat.
The shrewd, highly humorous adaptation reps the first screenplay written by actress Emma Thompson, while this is the first entirely non-Chinese picture directed by Taiwanese helmer Ang Lee, who scored in the West with his second and third films, “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.” Both potentially long-shot bets have paid off in spades, a tribute to the talent acumen of producer Lindsay Doran and exec producer Sydney Pollack.
Deftly setting the stage in late 18th-century rural England, pic briskly delineates the suddenly reduced circumstances of widow Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her three lovely daughters after the death of her husband. By law, the vast estate in which they live must pass to the deceased’s son by a previous marriage , who moves in with his snobbish wife, Fanny, and leaves the female brood to make do on a measly 500 pounds per year.
Eldest daughter Elinor (Emma Thompson) is the sensible one, a bright, if emotionally stunted, woman widely regarded as an incipient spinster. Middle daughter Marianne (Kate Winslet), in her late teens, is quite the opposite, a reckless romantic who can’t abide her sister’s restrained propriety. Little sister Margaret (Emile Francois) is an 11-year-old tomboy who spends most of her time in her treehouse avoiding the adults.
They are finally provided with a suitable, if cramped, cottage by a cousin, but not before they meet Fanny’s shyly charming brother, Edward (Hugh Grant), who establishes a strong rapport with Elinor. But just as it appears that he may propose, Edward is dispatched by Fanny to London, leaving Elinor utterly in the dark about their future.
Setting up in their new abode, the women are reliant for their social lives on the boisterous, conspiratorial Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy) and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (the irrepressible Elizabeth Spriggs). The wealthy, brooding, middle-aged Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman) comes to call, but Marianne finds her romantic dreams come to life in the person of the dashing John Willoughby (Greg Wise), who, in highest melodramatic style, appears on horseback to rescue the injured girl in the heath and literally sweeps her off her feet.
While the rest of the family and a quietly jealous Col. Brandon watch as she throws herself headlong into her great romance, Marianne, in turn, expects to receive a proposal. But, in a startling scene, Willoughby, following both Edward and Brandon, says that he has been abruptly called to London, and an astonished Marianne is heartbroken.
Thus set up is the mystery of what could possibly have drawn all three men so peremptorily to London. So when Mrs. Jennings invites the Dashwoods to the city for the social season, they must certainly accept, if only to discover what has become of the men that so interest them. The subsequent revelations, embarrassments, crises and magnanimous gestures are parceled out in measured, increasingly complicated fashion, with most of them fostered by the demands of social convention, propriety and money more than honest emotion. But by the end, as usual with Austen, a proper and happy balance has been achieved, and audiences will go out with a tear or two along with their smiles.
Thompson’s script manages the neat trick of preserving the necessary niceties and decorum of civilized behavior of the time while still cutting to the dramatic quick. But she and Lee have always kept an eye out for the comedic possibilities in any situation, assisted by a highly skilled cast of actors which, down to the most briefly seen supporting player, collectively seems to understand the wit and high spirits of the approach.
The choice of Lee to direct this so specifically British and period film, and his great success in doing so, will no doubt be the source of much wonderment. Although his previously revealed talents for dramatizing conflicting social and generational traditions will no doubt be noted, Lee’s achievement here with such foreign material is simply well beyond what anyone could have expected and may well be posited as the cinematic equivalent of Kazuo Ishiguro writing “The Remains of the Day.”
Especially in the early going, Lee keeps his camera at a discreetdistance, using mostly stable medium shots that are only occasionally punctuated by close-ups. Unlike so many modern directors, he never pushes an effect in one’s face, wisely allowing the power of the delicious plot to take hold on its own. Crucially for such an elaborately dressed production, the characters all come thoroughly alive with their ready wits and pulsing emotions, overcoming the two-century gap with seeming effortlessness.
Performances are all tops, with Thompson ideal as the sister who holds her feelings in check until it’s almost too late, Winslet (“Heavenly Creatures”) outstanding as the high-flying romantic who gets her wings burned, and Grant appealing and not overly mannered as the “too sedate” suitor, in Marianne’s opinion, who just might be the right man for Elinor. In a real change of pace from his best-known villainous roles, Rickman is unexpectedly moving as the patient gentleman with his own dark past. Wise’s Willoughby cuts a wide swath as the perfect callow suitor, Jones quietly impresses as the materfamilias, Francois is utterly winning as the young kid sister, Spriggs socks over her role as the social ringmaster, and Hugh Laurie gets astonishing comic mileage out of a very small role as a chatterbox’s husband.
Behind-the-scenes hands have crafted an exceedingly handsome production that is not overly plush. Production designer Luciana Arrighi and costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, all Oscar winners with Merchant Ivory, do their customary superb jobs, while Michael Coulter’s lensing gives the proceedings a pleasingly bleached look. Patrick Doyle’s music helps propel a film about which one can only complain that it’s almost too much of a good thing.