Judge Clark Douglas put aside his pride and prejudice to review this new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.
Recently, PBS aired a "complete Jane Austen" marathon, which featured some original productions and airings of well-known Austen films. The crown jewel of the marathon was the brand new three-hour adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. This comes pretty soon after the well-reviewed adaptation by Ang Lee in the 1990s, so is it really necessary viewing for Austen fans? If you're an Austen fan, you all ready know the answer to that, regardless of anything I might say.
Facts of the Case
The short version: Two economically disadvantaged sisters yearn for upper-class men of perfect character. They learn some lessons about life, become wise, and then marry such upper-class men. The End.
The not quite as short version: Sense and Sensibility tells the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Their family has been forced to move out of their very fine mansion due to some recent financial difficulties, which makes the girls very worried. Not so much because they have to move into less appealing housing, but rather because their weakened social status will give them less of a chance of landing a wonderful rich man. As so many of Austen's women do, Elinor (Hattie Morahan) and Marianne (Charity Wakefield) spend much of their time anticipating a marriage to some wealthy and lovable man. However, Elinor and Marianne both have a lot to learn about love and life. Elinor is reserved, quiet, and afraid to assert herself in any situation. Marianne is young and much too desperate, seeming eager to take the first remotely qualified candidate who will have her.
Despite the odds, several men do come into the lives of these sisters. Elinor begins to fall for Edward Farris (Dan Stevens), who may actually be committed to someone else. Marianne has two options. The first is the passionate and devilish Willoughby (Dominic Cooper), who offers a certain level of carnal excitement. The second is the more sensible, dull, and proper Col. Brandon (David Morrisey). As these young women and men fall in and out of love, lessons are learned and life takes drastic turns.
If there is a list of the authors whose works have been adapted for film and television the most, surely Jane Austen would rank somewhere near the top (between William Shakespeare and Stephen King). There is also another element that seems to set Austen apart from everyone else. While many directors and writers try to take lots of creative liberties with the works of many writers, most seem very nervous to tamper in any significant way with the work of Jane Austen. Perhaps that has something to do with the quality of Austen's writing. More likely, it has something to do with the fact that Jane Austen has an extraordinarily particular and picky set of followers.
Austen fans do appreciate elements such as pacing, cinematography, music, and all that stuff. However, their primary concern is that everything follows the plot and feelings of the book as closely as possible. Many Austen fans don't just read the novels; they memorize them, and feel as if they know all the characters personally. They may not like every filmed adaptation, but they will make every effort to see every filmed adaptation, if only so they can have the privilege of expressing their disappointment with it. I have a certain admiration for the dedication of Austen's fans…every great author should be so lucky as to have a group of followers determined to keep the purity of the author's work intact.
One of the most popular and well-loved Austen adaptations is the 1995 A&E miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice, which was adapted by Andrew Davies. The subsequent film version with Keira Knightly won my heart, and those of many film critics, but the fans seem to prefer the 1995 version for its noble fidelity to the novel. I suspect a similar split will take place between critics and Austen fans on this new version of Sense and Sensibility, which was also adapted by Davies.
The running time for this particular novel has been stretched to three hours, and it doesn't ever feel like its being padded. Fans of the novel will enjoy the fact that more time can be spent with the colorful members of the supporting cast, such as the fumbling Sir John Middleton (Mark Williams, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer, Tideland), Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett, Calender Girls), and the impudent young Margaret Dashwood (Lucy Boynton, Miss Potter).
While there are some weaknesses here and there in terms of the story (some rather suspect character motivations in particular), most of them come from Austen's novel (don't hate me, I just feel it lacks the richness of her best work), not Davies' contributions. He fills in a few original scenes here and there that were absent from the novel, trying to fill dramatic gaps. He handles these very successfully; they blend in beautifully with the Austen-written scenes.
Many DVDs the BBC has produced have been pretty thin in the extras department, so it's quite pleasing to discover a very generous batch of extra material in this two-disc set. First up, there's a half-hour interview with writer Andrew Davies and producer Anne Pivcevic, which is quite good. Next is a cast and crew commentary with a lot of different participants, which runs over the full three hours of the film. Not a lot of insights into adapting Austen's novel, but a whole lot of stories and even more giggling and snickering. Not the best track, but everyone is having fun. There's also a nice picture gallery, if you're into that sort of thing.
On Disc two, we're actually treated to a feature-length television film, Miss Austen Regrets, which stars Olivia Williams in the role of Jane Austen. The film is supposedly based on the letters of Jane Austen, but I have a suspicion that there were a lot of liberties taken with Austen's life in this particular film (as in the recent Becoming Jane). The film also has a rather annoying tendency to indulge nothing more than Austen hero worship, turning her into something of a feminist saint rather than a three-dimensional human being. It's okay, but certainly not as good as the main feature here. Finally, a four-part radio series called "Remember Jane Austen" is included, wrapping up a very generous set of features.
Another attribute is the DVD packaging, which is a very sturdy hardbound package designed to resemble a book. As for the DVD technical details, the transfer on Sense and Sensibility is very solid. The scenes featuring the charming English seaside are particularly gorgeous, and everything is presented with lush, vibrant colors. The sound is just fine, and so is the score by Martin Phipps, despite the off-putting presence of some anachronistic elements during a couple of scenes (synthesizers, electric guitars).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Whenever one is adapting a piece of classic literature, the temptation is be sure to preserve the original words of the author. Due to this, actors frequently seem to be at unease in such adaptations, and deliver their lines as if they are memorized recitations. That's all well and good if you just want to get the point across, but it keeps us at a distance from the characters, who seem more like literary figures than living human beings. Most of the performances in Sense and Sensibility struggle to some degree with this.
Also, I'm not sure that the filmmakers do a very good job of making us understand what a disadvantage this family is in. While we are told that they have been more or less reduced to poverty, their new location looks nothing short of beautiful. When your house is next to a beautiful seaside, and when you are surrounded with fields of lush green grass, and when your home itself seems very cozy and inviting, you're going to have a hard time getting me to feel too sorry for you. The romantic portrayal of poverty has been a weakness in many Austen adaptations, something that I feel only Joe Wright's version of Pride and Prejudice has dealt with successfully.
One small but very annoying element is the bookends that wrap around each one-hour portion of the miniseries. On the DVD, the whole thing is presented as one three-hour film, but at the end of each hour we get a two minute "Next…" preview of the next hour, which is followed by a two minute "Previously…" clip montage at the start of the next section. This is really quite irritating. If these were preserved at all, they should have been separate extras on the DVD, not built into the main feature.
"Hey, a new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility just came out!"
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Miss Austen Regrets
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