Monday, May 16, 2011

Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, 1995

Movie poster courtesy Columbia Pictures
Sense and Sensibility was a film released in 1995 starring Emma Thompson, a very young Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman.  The film is directed by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson wrote and won an Academy Award for the screenplay.

I love Ang Lee as a film director.  He is an absolutely amazing filmmaker and he won my heart forever with his Brokeback Mountain.  As a director, he simply adores landscapes and captures  scenery in a way that overwhelms his films with breathtaking beauty.  And as Sense and Sensibility is a period piece based on the Jane Austen novel of the same name, the setting is early nineteenth century England full its dramatic aristocratic residences, dramatic aristocratic gardens, and dramatic aristocratic ladies and gentlemen in their period costumes riding around in lovely horse-drawn carriages.  The film was shot in some of the most historic manors in all of England, including Saltram House, Compton Castle, and Trafalgar House. 

The story follows a family of women who have recently lost their husband/father and his fortune, which then by law falls to the distant son.  As a standard of the times, the women’s lives revolve around pursuing a marriage in the prosperous ranks and all of the worry and disappointments that go along with such a pursuit.  Lee’s drama follows Elinor Dashwood, played by Emma Thompson, and Marianne Dashwood, played by Kate Winslet, in their pursuits of love and marriage.  The sisters represent the “sense” and “sensibilities” of such endeavors: Elinor is the sensible one while Marianne is caught up in passion.  Austen’s novel, as does the film, critiques the inequalities of women’s rights at the time: women weren’t allowed to even earn an income.

For modern day audiences, both now and when the film was originally released in 1995, a period drama showcasing the early nineteenth century lifestyles of English aristocracy, revolving around manners, etiquette, and culture of a time and place we have no relation to, is quite a stretch.  In short, Americans are used to and demand quick paced stories set in current times with high-action and added special effects.  Can one endure two hours of characters bowing politely with lowered eyes before resuming their needle point?

The answer is a resounding yes, but only with Thomson’s top-notch writing and Lee’s superb directing.  Although Thompson herself plays the part of Elinor Dashwood, it is said Thompson wrote the screenplay with a much younger actress in mind—she had intended for Vanessa Redgrave’s’ daughters Natasha and Joely Richardson to play the parts of the sisters—and balked when Lee suggested Thompson play the character of Elinor, on the basis that she, Thompson, was too old.  However, Lee insisted and Thompson was cast, of course, and the rest is history.  Of course, Emma Thompson, the stellar actress that she is, does a wonderful turn with Elinor.  However, I could not help but wish for the casting to have matched Rickman and Thompson as  lovers and Grant and Winslet as a pair instead of the reverse.  Of course, my casting would have proven untrue to Austen’s novel but in Ang Lee’s film, the love interests seemed inauthentic and I feel would have played better with the switch.  Good thing I’m not Ang Lee, eh?

Greg Wise plays a wonderfully dashing scoundrel in John Willoughby that all but ruins Marianne, and it’s great fun to see performances of the  supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson (too-brief an appearance!), Hugh Laurie, and Jemma Jones.  Harriet Walter, as Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, and Elizabeth Spriggs, as Mrs. Jennings, are both a hoot!

The movie is lush valentine to nineteenth century England in landscapes, interiors, and manners and the acting is superb.  Do yourself a turn and seek out Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibilities and be sure to watch out for the “period” sheep! 

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