It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen is one of the greatest, and most influential, authors to ever live. Her six completed novels have been translated into about thirty five languages, and Pride and Prejudice alone has sold some 20 million copies. In addition to being one of the best selling authors of all time, her novels have been adapted into films, miniseries and radio dramas, as well as parodies, such as Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
One of the best adaptations of Austen’s work is Sense and Sensibility (1995) which was directed by Ang Lee, adapted for the screen by Emma Thompson and also stars Thompson, along with a cast that boasts an embarrassment of British talent, with Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Gemma Jones, Hugh Laurie and Robert Hardy (and that’s not even everyone).
Sense and Sensibility was issued in 1811, and was Austen’s first published novel. It has never been out of print. Lindsay Doran, the film’s executive producer, had wanted to adapt the film since her youth, and championed Thompson writing the screenplay due to the latter’s flare for wit. It was Thompson’s first screenplay, and she would go onto win an Oscar for her effort. Quite rightly, too, as it took five years for her to write said screenplay.
Initially, Thompson felt that Natasha and Joely Richardson should play the Dashwood sisters, but Lindsay Doran insisted that Thompson should play Elinor. This necessitated making Elinor several years older than in the novel, which I feel benefits the story enormously in not only having the perfect actress play the role, but also reinforcing the emotional maturity of Elinor with the physical. Her being older also acts as a visual shorthand for the audience in terms of understanding why Elinor is seen as “being on the shelf”, and not the more obvious catch that Marianne supposedly is.
The film follows the story of the Dashwood family, focusing particularly on the romances of the two oldest sisters, Elinor and Marianne. The family is cast into genteel poverty when the family’s patriarch dies, and his estate is entailed away from his daughters. His oldest son solely inherits the estate, and reneges on his promise to his father’s deathbed request that he financially support his half sisters and stepmother. Love, social alienation, tragedy and eventually happiness are all experienced by Elinor and Marianne as the story unfolds.
This is my favourite Jane Austen adaptation. I feel that the entire cast is perfectly chosen, from the leads right to the smallest supporting parts. Although Marianne is one of my least favourite Austen characters, due to her selfish disregard for the feelings of others, especially that of Elinor, who is infinitely patient and supportive of her sister. I believe that Kate Winslet is superb in the role. She realises the deeply emotional, often self-centred character without affect. She and Emma Thompson are entirely believable as siblings. Whilst Ang Lee was originally reticent to cast her in the part, it is very fortunate that her excellent audition won him over. Her nomination for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar was immensely deserved. The scene in which Willoughby rejects her and humiliates her at the ball, is played with heartbreaking deftness.
Before Sense and Sensibility, Hugh Grant had endeared himself to audiences as the adorable nerd in Four Weddings and A Funeral. His portrayal of Elinor’s love interest, the kind hearted Edward Ferris, is understated and perfectly matches the natural turn given by Emma Thompson. This more toned down performance was thanks to Ang Lee, who wanted Grant to show how repressed and controlled Edward is, and how he cannot express his love for Elinor as he wants to. Grant adored Thompson’s script, calling it “genius”, and agreed to a lower salary due to the film’s relatively small budget. He and Thompson have wonderful chemistry, and the gradual, gentle manner of their love for each other is the heartbeat of the film.
This review of the film would not be complete without a discussion about the glorious performance of Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon, who is perhaps my favourite character of the entire film. As Thompson very rightly said, despite him having played “Machiavellian types so effectively” in the past, he is able to “convey [the] extraordinary sweetness [of] his nature” through Brandon. Whilst Colin Firth as Mr Darcy is indeed dreamy, over the last few years, for me, Rickman as Colonel Brandon has become the gold standard of Austen’s leading men. The scene in which Brandon first hears Marianne sing, and then sees her, is pure romance, with Rickman conveying so much awe and love in that moment.
The performances of Gemma Jones as Mrs Dashwood, Greg Wise as Mr Willoughby, Harriet Walter as Fanny Dashwood, Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs as Sir Middleton and Mrs Jennings, Hugh Laurie as Mr Palmer and James Fleet as John Dashwood are also incredible. The film would not, and could not, be the same without them.
The costumes for Sense and Sensibility were designed by Jenny Beaven and John Bright, who had previously been responsible for the costume designs for A Room With A View and Maurice. The duo’s main goal was to create accurate period clothing that reflected the colours, shapes and silhouettes of the Regency era. In this they were entirely successful. The costumes are incredibly authentic and beautifully crafted, with each one conveying the traits of each character in a very visually rich manner. Elinor favours simple colours, patterns and designs, reinforcing her reserved, practical nature. In contrast, Marianne wears brighter colours with dresses that have a more decorative finish. This is very clearly shown in the differences in their wedding garments.
The attire of the three male leads also visually convey character traits to the audience. Edward is always modestly dressed, with high collars and simple cravats. He dresses in dark browns and blues, as well as black. His garments are practical and simple like Elinor’s, showing his humble nature, which is in sharp contrast to the fussy, fashionable dress of his brother and brother-in-law. This simplistic attire also shows his natural inclination to be a country cleric, unlike his snobby, vain brother.
John Willoughby cuts a very fashionable, Byronic figure, especially when he “rescues” Marianne after she twists her ankle. His attire is far less restrictive than Edward’s, but lacks the prissy fussiness of Robert Ferris and John Dashwood. When he is courting Marianne, his clothing is bright and youthful, but when he pursues a marriage of convenience, his clothing becomes far more restrictive and elaborate, showing his casting off of his carefree love for Marianne in favour of financial and social security.
Colonel Brandon is more masculine and outdoors in his style of dress, with corduroy jackets and practical looking hats. The only time which he wears anything remotely conveying his social status and military rank, is at his wedding, and even then he looks unaffected and dependable. His rescue of Marianne (from something far more life threatening than a bruised ankle) shows his lack of care for his own attire when her life is at stake. He’s also the only male character to wear shirtsleeves, making even more relatable for a modern audience.
Even the extras at the ball have incredible costumes, with Willoughby’s uptight out of sight bride to be, who we only see for about half a second, wearing a stunning gown in soft grey with gorgeous jewellery. Mrs Dashwood and Fanny Dashwood each dress according to their social standing and role in life. Mrs Dashwood wears increasingly simple fabrics and covers her hair with lacy mop caps and bonnets, although she does keep her dainty frills. Fanny wears overly ornate hats adorned with feathers, needlessly finicky accessories and layers of clothing. All of these details show her frivolous nature that is centred on greed and outward displays of wealth.
As with the ending of Austen’s story, everything comes together perfectly in this film. It is quite rightly considered to be
one of the best Austen adaptations of all time, and also one of the best films of the 1990s.Sense and Sensibility, Wikipedia
It was nominated for seven academy awards, including Best Costume Design, and was vital in the revitalising of Austen’s work at the time. I would like to argue that without this film, later Austen adaptations like Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, would not have had the same visual style and bankability.