Monday, December 17, 2012

Sense and Sensibility

I was reading somewhere the other day that Jane Austen's book, Sense and Sensibility presents two contrasting characters, the sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who exemplify the two words in the title of the book: Elinor seems to be all 'sense' - that is, sensible - Marianne is all sensibility - that is, she lets her emotions control her life, and can't see how Elinor can be so calm in the face of heartbreak.   But the sisters also exemplify two modes of philosophical thought: whether it's better to look at life sensibly, calmly, almost dispassionately, or whether one should be utterly aware, full of response to everything that happens.

In the book the sisters each learn to appreciate the other's point of view, in due course, but not before both of them have suffered considerable heartbreak and hurt.   I watched the 1995 film version of the book again last night (somehow it's free on You Tube - I suspect it shouldn't be) and the two actors in the movie, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, portray these two approaches to life admirably.  You feel for Marianne (Winslet) in her overwhelming pain when her lover ups and leaves, but equally you feel for Elinor who must not only harbour an unspoken love for Edward Ferrars, but find herself having to keep secret his longstanding engagement to another woman who takes her into her trust.  Marianne can't understand how Elinor can keep her pain to herself; only towards the end of the film does Elinor bitterly tell her what a quandary she's been put into, and only in the last scene is she finally able to give vent to her feelings when she discovers that her lover hasn't married the other woman after all, and that he's free to marry her.  This moment in the movie, when all the pent-up anguish bursts from Thompson in a moment she can't control, is one of the best acting scenes you'll find in the cinema - you see her wanting to weep for joy, and yet she has to deal with getting rid of all the accumulated anguish first.

I saw Ang Lee's movie of Sense and Sensibility back when it first came out in 1995, and I haven't forgotten how effective it was: the look of the movie is wonderful, with the weather playing an important part in connecting the characters' feelings, and the wonderful sense of the period.  The cast are uniformly good: Emma Thompson had written the script, so she knew the piece inside out and plays her role wonderfully; Winslet is the emotional Marianne and superbly delineates the quickly changing emotions that this character is subject to.  Alan Rickman is Colonel Brandon, a man with a gloomy past but also a man of considerable integrity who finds himself having to play second fiddle to a known libertine (played with great energy by Greg Wise).  Hugh Grant is a revelation in this movie: if you've ever thought he was a lightweight actor, check out his performance here.  It's not a large part - he appears early in the movie and then vanishes for a good deal of the time until he comes into his own at the end, but every scene and every gesture and expression count.

And there are a bunch of character roles: Tom Wilkinson for about a minute at the beginning; the twit of a son from The Vicar of Dibley in a wonderful role as his son, a henpecked husband; his fearsomely dominating wife who thinks she's doing the Family some good; Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton as a couple - he can't bear her constant prattle and makes sarcastic remarks about her at every point, and just when you think he's a hard-hearted man he turns out to be warm and sympathetic to those who are prepared to see through his hardness.  Staunton has a great moment when, after hearing there may be a threat to her baby's health, she turns in a moment from her constant prattling to a scream that pierces the heart as she races to move the baby from the house.  Imogen Stubbs plays Hugh Grant's supposed fiancĂ©e, a somewhat devious character who gets an awful comeuppance at one point from her future sister-in-law: one moment there's utter quiet on the screen in a close-up of the two women's heads, next moment the camera cuts to a wide shot and there's an explosion as the sister-in-law throws the work she's been doing in the air and simultaneously thrusts Stubbs to the floor with violent anger.  Then there are Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs as in-laws who apparently live in the same house, (they're presumably widower and widow) have the same interests, have the same all-encompassing generosity, fill the screen with boisterous energy (always accompanied by half a dozen dogs) and 'manage' other people.  Yes, they'd be annoying in real life, but they're a wonderful couple in the movie.

I had a copy of the script of this film and the diary that Thompson kept as she was writing it and then involved in the production.  It's as fascinating as the movie and Thompson plainly had a deep love for the book and wanted it translated to the screen in the best possible manner.  In this, I think, she's been completely successful.  I don't know how much the film deviates from the book - I suspect it's only in dramatic form but certainly not in spirit - and my suspicion is that Jane Austen herself would have been pleased with it.  It's a classic.

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