Released in 1995, the Ang Lee-directed adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was uniformly lauded by critics and fetched Emma Thompson, its main actress and screenplay writer, an Oscar for the latter role.
Like most Austen novels, Sense and Sensibility offers a slice of nineteenth-century English life via the private dramas of its protagonists. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are its heroines, sisters with vastly different temperaments. While Elinor is quiet and guarded, Marianne is romantic and breezy. They live with their mother and younger sister Margaret in Norland Park, a vast estate in Sussex.
Marriage and its tricky ability to transform fortunes for women is a common Austen theme. In Sense and Sensibility too, the prospects brought about by marriage drive the narrative. After the death of their father, the Dashwood sisters are left penniless since his fortunes now belong to his son from another marriage. They must leave and move into a house in Devonshire belonging to John Middleton, a cousin of Mrs Dashwood’s.
This sets in motion the coming and going of potential suitors for the two elder sisters. Edward Ferrars and Elinor fall in love, his kind and gentle nature diametrically opposite to that of his greedy sister, Fanny, wife to Elinor’s step-brother. But their love is not immediately realised as Edward is already engaged to Lucy Steele.
The situation for Marianne is scarcely different. She falls passionately for John Willoughby, who resides next door to the Middleton estate. All charm and suavity, Willoughby is the antithesis of the restrained Edward. A brief intense summer of love between him and Marianne does not last, and the novel ends with her marrying the staid but altogether more reliable Colonel Brandon.
The film version takes some liberties right off the bat. In the novel, Edward is expressly depicted as not handsome but Lee cast the dreamy Hugh Grant for the role. It is to Grant’s credit that he nevertheless portrays the bumbling Edward well.
Appropriately enough, the dashing Greg Rise plays Willoughby. Thompson plays Elinor and a young Kate Winslet, a perfect mix of mischief and gravitas, is Marianne. Finally, Alan Rickman, in a neat foreshadowing of his role as the misjudged Severus Snape, plays Colonel Brandon.
It is a measure of Austen’s superior powers as a writer that her novel works so well even when she flips the writer’s credo of “Show; don’t tell”. Vast chunks of Sense and Sensibility pass by without dialogue, as the omniscient narrator informs and guides the reader through the lives of the characters. Naturally, the film is more action-packed, if by action we mean well-coiffed English parties where characters battle disquiet over one another’s motivations about the gentlest things.
A lot of the introduced action in the film version revolves around Marianne, whose love for poetry is brought out by Thompson in two scenes that are strikingly different from the way they are presented in the novel. Early on in the novel, Marianne complains to her mother about how Edward might not be a suitable match for Elinor. Her reason: his“tame” and “spiritless” reading of a William Cowper poem.
The poem is not revealed by Austen in the book, but in the film, Thompson has Edward read The Castaway in a decidedly unpoetic register. Winslet’s Marianne is suitably frustrated, her expression of disgust bringing to life Marianne’s words in the novel: “He admires as a lover, not as a connoisseur. To satisfy me, those characters must be united. I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own.”
The other scene occurs towards the end. By now Marianne has learnt of Willoughby’s treachery and, together with Elinor, has returned from London to Devonshire. Just as she alights from the carriage, she goes for a long walk, ending her journey, expectedly, within sight of Willoughby’s house. Rain beating down on her, she murmurs to herself words from a Shakespearean sonnet that she and Willoughby together read when they were courting: “Love is not love /Which alters when it alteration finds…”
It’s a heartbreaking scene and burns with feverish intensity in Winslet’s steady hands. But it is absent from the novel. Willoughby and Marianne never read the Shakespearean sonnet together in the book. Yet, by including them in the screenplay, Thompson both accentuates Marianne’s romantic nature and distinguishes her character from that of Elinor, whose abortive affair with Edward is conducted with splendid reserve, let alone declarations of poetry.
The film also substantially builds on the novel’s central theme. In spite of their different natures, neither Elinor nor Marianne loses her dignity in the search for a husband. Marianne is heartbroken in love but she finds in Colonel Brandon, who has pined for her from the time they first met, a steady companion. Likewise, Elinor is resigned to a life of spinsterhood until Edward seeks her out.
In this regard, the film keeps to the covert feminism of Austen whose books brought out the challenges that women of that era faced in realising their destinies. Thompson even introduces a dialogue between Elinor and Edward in which the two discuss how they are both tied down by circumstance, he by being pushed to become a man of the world, and she by the mere fact of her gender. When Edward says, “Our circumstances are therefore precisely the same,” Elinor responds, “Except that you will inherit your fortune. We cannot even earn ours.”
Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is thus not just a text revised for the screen but an old story dramatically refurbished in pleasingly modern attire. Lee, who went on to make wildly different dramas –from Brokeback Mountain to Life of Pi, shows early promise here with his grasp of narrative flow and a genteel presentation of English life of the time. With Thompson’s brilliant screenplay, the film brings to stunning life Austen’s glorious words.