The Complete Jane Austen "Sense and Sensibility" by Laurie Viera Rigler
Imagine my delight when PBS asked me to blog about the new Sense and Sensibility film with a screenplay by Andrew Davies, he of the famous Colin Firth-in-a-wet-shirt scene from the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. (I don't really get all the fuss about the wet shirt, being far more enamored of the "I shall conquer this" fencing scene, but that's beside the point.)
Anyway, after I stopped turning cartwheels, a mild feeling of apprehension set in. As an Austen addict whose obsession exceeds even that of the protagonist of my novel, my mind is so full of the text that often I must watch a new film adaptation twice just to see if I like it or not. The first time I watch, my mind is buzzing: Did the screenwriter/director stay true to text? Why did they add this scene or cut that one? Not exactly the uncluttered frame of mind one needs in order to sit back and enjoy the story unfolding on the screen.
But this new Sense and Sensibility? That called for three viewings before I could even see it as a film unto itself. Not only was the novel echoing in my head, but the Oscar-winning Ang Lee/Emma Thompson movie, which is perhaps my favorite of all the Austen-related films, demanded comparisons at every turn.
Nevertheless, I'm happy to report that I find myself in a state of admiration for the new Sense and Sensibility. A review by Amazon UK's editorial staff addresses the inevitable comparisons to the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson film by suggesting that "it's perhaps best [to] see them as companion pieces." I agree. The luxury of this particular film's nearly three hours of screen time provides more opportunities to stay true to text, which we devotees of text certainly appreciate. However, this film, like most adaptations, includes expanded and even invented scenes, something I have no objection to, as long as they serve the story and character development.
Most important is that the new film, like its predecessor, captures the spirit of the book. It is the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who represent the contrast and interplay between sense and sensibility. Elinor, the "sense" sister, feels deeply but would rather keep her pain to herself. She simply does not want to add to the grief of her newly widowed mother and highly wrought sister Marianne, the "sensibility" sister.
But Austen's story is far more complex than a mere comparison of opposites, for neither sense nor sensibility can preserve either sister from heartbreak or from making incorrect assumptions about the man she loves. The difference is in how each sister deals with her challenges. Marianne continually puts herself in harm's way by flaunting convention and taking dangerous risks that nearly cost her life as well as her reputation. Elinor builds inner strength through service to those she loves and acceptance of what she cannot change.
There are several noteworthy ways in which the filmmakers stayed with and strayed from text. Consider, for example, this brief exchange in the novel between Colonel Brandon and Elinor, in which Colonel Brandon tells of a duel he had with Willoughby (Vol. II, Chapter IX):
"...we met by appointment, he to defend, I to punish his conduct. We returned unwounded, and the meeting, therefore, never got abroad."
Elinor sighed over the fancied necessity of this; but to a man and a soldier she presumed not to censure it.
Even if a modern reader realizes that "meeting by appointment" means a duel, it's unlikely that he or she does more than sigh, like Elinor, over the violent manner by which some men settle their differences. But I doubt anyone gives the duel itself much thought.
In the film, Andrew Davies took Brandon's spare account of an off-stage event and turned it into an immediate scene. Smart thinking. After all, why not take full advantage of this inherently visual medium? And what's not to like about two men in billowing white shirts clashing swords? But more important than the eye-candy factor is that we, the audience, get to see Colonel Brandon in all his manly glory, thus getting us to want him to win Marianne in the end.
Having nearly three hours of screen time also enables us to observe more of the public yet secretive courtship of Marianne (the lovely Charity Wakefield) and Willoughby (Dominic Cooper). The camera follows the pair from dances at Barton Park to an erotically charged scene in which Marianne allows Willoughby to cut a lock of her hair. We tag along as they explore Willoughby's future estate at Allenham, two kids in love wandering through a fairytale mansion alone and unchaperoned. In that scene, which exists in the book only via secondhand accounts, we see Marianne teetering on the edge of a no-turning-back, sexual-awakening moment that is as relevant today as it would have been then, and we are nearly as swept away as she.
The most controversial choice that Davies made was the opening scene, which shows a seduction. Although the scene is an invented one, what it portrays is the actual backstory of the book. While some have dismissed this choice as mere prurience and/or a wrongful sexing-up of Austen, I disagree. By playing out existing backstory as a scene, the filmmakers show how dangerous it was for a single woman of Austen's era to stray outside the bounds of propriety, and how precarious her position in society was. Thus Marianne's near-fall from grace creates even more dramatic tension than it might have done without that opening scene.
Even the setting itself is dramatic, though Austen did not situate the Dashwoods' cottage in the windswept, wave-battered cove we see in the film. Somehow the sea becomes almost a character itself, its crashing waves an elemental manifestation of Marianne's wild excesses as well as the emotions that Elinor (the excellent Hattie Morahan) feels but keeps to herself.
In the book, master storyteller Jane Austen convinces us that after getting over her disappointment with Willoughby, Marianne does indeed end up loving Brandon with her whole heart. We not only accept it, we feel that Brandon deserves Marianne as compensation for his past sufferings and present forbearance.
In the movie, Davies takes things further. He lays the foundation for a romance between Brandon (the appealing David Morrissey) and Marianne early in the story. We see Marianne approving of Brandon's mind, his conversation, his taste in literature and music. It is only when she realizes that everyone around them is pairing them up romantically that she withdraws, quite naturally shocked, as any seventeen-year-old girl would be, at the thought of marrying someone so ancient as a man in his thirties.
Davies invents another scene that shows Col. Brandon with a falcon, which illustrates that Brandon has the strength and gentleness to tame not only the falcon, but Marianne. These invented scenes, along with the duel, help prove that Brandon has the requisite qualities (not to mention the attractions of his tragic romantic past), to win Marianne's heart.
Another invented scene shows Brandon promising his ward Eliza, out-of-wedlock baby in arms, that he will take care of them. We see that Eliza does not really comprehend that her seducer has abandoned her for good. By bringing Eliza out of the shadowy place she inhabits in the book and placing her in the foreground, her tragedy becomes tangible.
Which is why we cannot for a moment wish for Marianne to end up with the man who would do this, and thus why the scene that Emma Thompson wisely chose not to include in her script, i.e., Willoughby showing up to try and make amends--actually works well in Andrew Davies' adaptation. This scene was a tricky one to pull off in both book and film, for in the book Elinor herself was moved by Willoughby's sufferings.
The only unfortunate omission in this adaptation is in Lucy Steele's character. She is not quite the conniving, jealous little manipulator that she was in the book. Consequently, the motivation for Edward (the dishy Dan Stevens, who has a wet shirt of his own) to two-time Lucy (if only lust in his heart, but still) has less weight. Davies nearly makes up for it, however, by bringing to the screen Anne Steele, Lucy's beau-daciously ridiculous older sister, and giving her a laugh-out-loud piece of dialogue.
I couldn't possibly conclude without mentioning Janet McTeer. This stunningly talented and beautiful actress is understated and riveting as Mrs. Dashwood. One absolutely feels that the only adult in the family is Elinor, but we like her mother none the less for it.
Finally, what is most satisfying about this film is how Davies has Marianne sum up the wisdom she has gained in contemplating her manifold errors in judgment: "It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are. It is what we do. Or fail to do."
And on that note, I most certainly won't fail to watch this film again. Or to re-read Sense and Sensibility, to which it owes everything, at least once a year.