Austen Pops

It's been a good year in the movies for Jane Austen, and who deserves it more? A month ago, we had a good, workmanlike version of her final novel, Persuasion; and, by far the best Hollywood comedy of the year, Amy Heckerling's Clueless is a free adaptation of Emma.

Austen's first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, is the third work by this most masterly of our language's prose stylists (she is to English prose what Shakespeare is to English blank verse) to be made into a movie this year. Though directed by Ang Lee, the film is largely the project of Emma Thompson, who plays Elinor and wrote the screen adaptation.

The film is a lovely piece of work. It can come as no big surprise that Thompson's performance is a joy, but she also makes an impressive debut as a screenwriter. She keeps the deceptively mild, casual narrative flowing with short, swift scenes that hide the leisureliness of the structure; she punches up a crisis to give the story a more serious tone toward the climax; and she makes the dialogue speakable without sacrificing the epigrammatic beauty, wit and precision of Austen's language.

The plot concerns the marital fortunes of two upper-middle-class sisters in rural England in the early 19th century. The elder, Elinor, has good sense, while the younger, Marianne (Kate Winslet), has a passionate sensibility. Left with minimal money (by the standards of their class) after their father's estate passes to a half brother, they both become involved in romances with men who are bound elsewhere.

Edward (Hugh Grant), the charmingly unambitious brother of the greedy half brother's wife, falls for Elinor, but his family will disinherit him if he marries too far beneath his station. Marianne is swept away by passion for the dashing John Willoughby (Greg Wise), but he has a guilty secret in his past. Like Edward, he is asked, on pain of being disinherited, to act against his heart in the name of propriety. More complications arise, and more past secrets are revealed, as these two plot strands weave in and out of each other.

As played by Thompson, Elinor emerges as the perfect Austen heroine, a paragon of good sense--both sensible and sensitive. Winslet makes Marianne's self-absorption charming. Elizabeth Spriggs is hilarious as the intimidatingly jovial Mrs. Jennings. And that most teary-eyed of Brit actresses, Gemma Jones, gives surprising depth to the role of the mother.

Grant, the Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Got Arrested for Lewd Conduct, scurries back to the safety of another role as a sweet, stammering lover, and it fits him like a glove. The most magnetic performance in the film, apart from Thompson's, is that of Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon, the melancholy older man who unrequitedly loves Marianne and who quietly works toward her happiness. When he and Elinor privately discuss what to do about the various problems, they're like conspirators in decency.

That even some of Austen's delicate shadings of theme come through in this luminous film is a tribute to Thompson and to the actors. But the picture also represents a triumph for Lee, whose earlier films--Pushing Hands, Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet--also were wistful yarns about family and marriage, and the tension between love and social tradition. It was clear from those works that Lee was a talented and keenly observant director, but their stories tended to be too thin for the themes with which they were burdened.

With Sense and Sensibility, Lee seems in fine control of the material. His period touch is subtle, light, thoroughly convincing--watching the film, you realize how far into archness British period pieces sometimes lapse. And, while cinematographer Michael Coulter makes it achingly lovely to look at, visual beauty is not what Sense and Sensibility is about. Gratifyingly, it's about just what it says it's about.

Sense and Sensibility:
Directed by Ang Lee; with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Spriggs and Gemma Jones.

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