Sense and Sensibility (1995) — Movie Review
I write reviews based on four categories: Coherence, Intensity of Effect, Complexity, and Originality, each based on a score of 1 to 5. The total score is averaged out of these parts.
Sense and Sensibility was an historical drama based on the first major work of Jane Austen, and was directed by Ang Lee and starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslett. The film is such an incredible display of screenwriting at its most biting, and considering Emma Thompson herself adapted the screenplay over five years, I think this is deeply impressive. The film is sophisticated yet sleek, passionate, yet sobering, which embellishes the title of the film all too well. Out of the many historical dramas I have watched recently, the 1995 adaptation is one of my favorites so far, and I’d like to explain why.
Elinor and Marianne are two older sisters caught on the bad side of inheritance. The two of them and their kid sister Margaret are forced out of their house after the death of their father, and the half brother John finds himself unwilling to provide for their welfare, thanks to the manipulations of his selfish wife Fanny. What follows is possible romance for the two sisters while they wrestle with some of the better and worse parts of each other’s personality. Elinor, played by Thompson, is introverted, articulate, methodical, and understanding. Marianne is adventurous, passionate, musical, and emotionally honest and forthcoming. The two therefore have very different approaches to life and relationships. I think this is a great set up for viewers, who will find themselves slowly gravitating towards one or the other. I of course very much align with Elinor, as in my life I have done some of the very things Thompson portrays in keeping quiet despite evidence that needs to be disclosed.
One of the difficulties of the film is how a director might provide space and time for the wide assortment of characters and plotlines that weave in and out of the foreground, while simultaneously constructing a scaffolding for future developments. In my opinion, Ang Lee’s direction and Emma Thompson’s writing work profoundly well. Yes, the film is two hours and 16 minutes long, far longer than many historical dramas, and I suspect it’s for that purpose. But the film never felt slow. In fact, each scene is brimming with detail, especially body language which I think works just as much as the dialogue. There were only a handful of occasions where I expressed confusion at the turn of events, but over time the film managed to bring them into clarity. We learn deeply the problems of Edward Willoughby after his courtship of Marianne, and we can see his plotline converge with Colonel Brandon’s, played by Alan Rickman, in which he delivers one of the most engaging and intimate stories about his missing daughter I have ever seen in a film like this. Each shot feels especially deliberate, not just in developing plot, but in character, as even the way the two sisters are depicted in a room says something about them. The film carries the viewer through twist after turn so effectively that I cannot help but award Sense and Sensibility with a 5 out of 5 for coherence.
Intensity of Effect
I had not read Austen’s novel beforehand, and unlike her other works, little has been shown to me of Sense and Sensibility, so out of all the period pieces, I came into this one most blind. What a sensation it was then to be revealed all this plot points. I was literally grabbing my wife’s legs in profane shock at certain points in the film. To be sure, in our movement through adaptations of classic novels, plenty of films have offered stark twists of this kind to great effect, such as in 2011’s Jane Eyre when the twist is revealed about what Rochester is hiding. I think, though, that there is something about Sense and Sensibility that is elevated above several other films of its kind. Partly it has to do with the adapted script by Thompson, which allows the film to be much faster, yet still retain the wit and wisdom of Austen’s thoughts. I think, too, that something is going on with the body language of the film that feels intentional, much more so than other films. Many period pieces have characters sitting and talking, but Sense and Sensibility feels so alive with action and business, where characters are doing things, and the entire depth of each shot feels well-used. There is such movement in this film that it reminds you that historical people were very much full of life. Rooms are filled with actors, actresses, and extras, especially party scenes in London which feel so heated. Each shot is loaded with emotion as well, even emotions like disgust, when we’re exposed to shots of the London streets covered in horse shit. You would think that, in a period piece film, this is the kind of shot a director would want to steer away from, but the film recognizes that the connotation of this shot serves the purposes of the film as a whole, where we know how Elinor’s love interest, Edward, feels about London, and it also foreshadows the tragedy that is to unfold there. It’s this kind of understanding of the film as a whole that I feel has really slackened in our time, where we seem to have many films atomized and fragmented to offer great set-pieces, but that add up to little artistic merit. By the end of Sense and Sensibility I was just as emotionally exhausted as I wasecstatic. A 5 out of 5 for intensity of effect.
The screenplay by Thompson had the herculean task of somehow elevating Austen’s story by presenting the men more often in the film than in the novel. Of course, certain liberties were taken, as they always are, with an adaptation, so I won’t discuss accuracy, especially considering I have not read the novel in question. What I would like to discuss is the difficult work that seems to have gone into film to render the complexity of Austen’s thoughts into two hours and sixteen minutes, in a way that is comprehensible to the viewer. One is that characters establish themselves rather quickly in biting dialogue. Edward is understanding and great with kids. Fanny is selfish and conniving. Elinor is sense, and Marianne is sensibility. And when conflicts occur, many of the characters quickly say the exact wrong thing at the wrong time. The second aspect is that, when multiple characters are introduced, they are contrasted with one another. Both Willoughby and Colonel Brandon are passionate types, but while Willoughby is a violent flame, Brandon is a smoldering coal. Mr. and Mrs. Palmer could not be more different, as one is quite stern and unmoving, while Mrs. Palmer flies about the room erratically like a loud bird. In some cases, there is a delay in introductions, such as Edward’s brother Robert, but his case too is one of contrast. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Jennings, they are introduced together and have strikingly similar personalities. In this way, the film is able to pack more characters than most.
I think Sense and Sensibility feels like a miniseries, in the way the film builds up to emotional payoffs in each act in a way that feels like we are checking in on the story. One obvious moment right at the beginning is when Edward promises to deliver an Atlas in-person to the women at their cottage, only to have a parcel arrive with the Atlas packaged instead, and Edward nowhere to be found. The silence that follows is achingly and tragically powerful, and it is from there that we move onto Marianne’s love life instead. We will of course return to Elinor and her affection for Edward, but far far later. I think in other films, this could amount to them lacking focus, but as I said before, Ang Lee seems to understand the whole of the film much better, and each scene brings us back to universal themes of love and our desires, of tradition and money, of passion in the midst of society. These questions have not gone away, for it is not as if in our social media profiles, when we begin dating someone, we hope to express ourselves in our most raw and unmediated form. Not at all. We project society and how it influences us at all times, whether we are aware of it or not.
The film does not have to be boisterous or gregarious to achieve this effect. There is a scene with Thompson and Hugh Grant, where the camera rests entirely at a flat shot with both the characters equidistant from it, and it all rests on their delivery. There are no cuts. We see their entire bodies, and though the speaking is quite calm and reserved, the end result is still entirely arresting. Several long shots of frames within frames result from moving the camera physically in, and then pulling back, rather than cutting. Somehow these minimalist touches make the film more complex, which reveals Ang Lee as an artist at work. Between Thompson’s writing and Ang Lee’s directing, Sense and Sensibility feels like a confident work that is ripe for watching and rewatching.
Thanks to Austen’s powerful storytelling, there is plenty to think over for its significance. Marianne’s eventual suitor and marriage in particular is one that is ripe for investigation, while the twist ending for Elinor is a little more fantastical, and thus says slightly less. Wealth inequality has more often than not been highly concentrated in human history, as quite a lot of the egalitarianism we’ve seen in the middle of the 20th century was just as much a fluke as intentional economic policy, so it should stand to reason that the questions Austen posed centuries ago will not go away. For a complex film told with expert hands, a 5 out of 5 works here.
Unfortunately, two sides of the same coin as a way to contrast differing characters is a fairly reliable artistic move from authors and artists, going back as far as there have been characters. Who is Achilles, for example, without his Hector? I think the originality of the film has far more to do with the interdisciplinary combination of Ang Lee as an Asian director with Western material, which seemed to have been quite the culture shock during production. Still, I think it was all worth it. Though I have not seen every film of 1995 that happened to be nominated for best director, I could have easily imagined Ang Lee taking the prize. The originality lies very much in the delivery of the lines and the acting of the body language, which is so far afield from what is typically seen in historical dramas. Usually many of the actors are, like 2020’s Emma, throwing themselves either daintily or excessively, into the camera, either because they are insecure about the film’s role as yet another British period piece, or they are unsure of whether viewers will understand the dialogue. This can have odd effects, like in the 2012 Shakespeare adaptation “Much Ado About Nothing” directed by Joss Whedon. In that film, characters overact so as to compensate for what they feel is arcane writing. Fortunately for viewers, Thompson’s script is able to curb that problem, but Ang Lee was also wise enough to dedicate performances to the scene at hand, which feels far more authentic. As a result, comedic moments feel more earned and authentic as well, more human and endearing, rather than cynical or gaudy. I don’t think it is necessarily original to adapt Austen, and I happen to think that this particular story is not quite as rich as some of Austen’s other works, but I DO think that this particular adaptation has a lot to say, and because of that an originality of 4 out of 5 helps to remind viewers of how much this is elevated over other period pieces.
At a combined score of 4.75 out of 5.0, I think that Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility from 1995 is the definitive version of the film, full stop. It would take a miracle to unseat it. That means a lot, and it is something I cannot really say to other adaptations of classical novels I have seen recently. Compared to Sense and Sensibility, most other adaptations feel like Disney live-action remakes. They somehow manage to take the material and present it in a way that feels loyal, but Sense and Sensibility does a tremendous job of staking a claim for itself as a complex film that feels like it could have been a film first, and that comes from an incredibly airtight screenplay and artistic direction. Since I have been reviewing films in September of 2022, it stands as the best averaged score yet. I cannot recommend the film enough.