Film Reviews

Sense and Sensibility Ang Lee

Rating - 8/10

When producer Lindsay Doran selected Taiwanese director Ang Lee to adapt Jane Austen’s first novel Sense and Sensibility, there were more than a few groans of displeasure from the famed 19th century authoress’ fanbase. Most contained an inkling of xenophobia. With the exception of The Wedding Banquet’s sparse use of English, almost all of Lee’s previous three efforts had been filmed in Mandarin. Suspicions were further sharpened when Lee freely admitted in interviews that he had never even read the novel. How after all, inquired Lee’s doubters, could this director of three acclaimed films in his native Taiwan uphold the dignity of Austen’s work and make a clean transition into English language cinema, when he had never even glanced through the pages of Austen’s tale of self-restraint?

Shot on a fifteen million dollar budget, Sense and Sensibility (1995) primarily focuses on the relationship between the two Dashwood sisters, sensible spinster Elinor (Emma Thompson) and expressively passionate Marianne (Kate Winslet). When their father dies, the patrilineal laws of the period grant the sisters’ half-brother John (James Fleet) the bulk of their father’s estate. Offered only £500 a year as part of their inheritance, the Dashwood women are pushed out of their home by John’s snobbish wife Fanny (Harriet Walter).
Forced to rely on the assistance of relatives in order to find shelter and subsistence, Elinor, Marianne, their mother (Gemma Jones) and younger sister Margaret (Emilie Francois) are shuttled from one set of relatives to another. Along the way, the contrary sisters each fall in love with two equally diverse men: Marianne, the roguish Willoughby (Greg Wise); Elinor, the loyal Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant). A third romantic prospect arrives in the form of the devoted, yet dreary Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman). However, obstacles soon enter into the picture. Relationships begin to sour and marriage becomes talked in survivalist, rather than romantic terms.
Expectations for Sense and Sensibility were certainly high amongst Austen’s acolytes. Prior to the release of Lee’s film, there had only been one solitary feature-length adaptation of Austen’s works, Robert Z. Leonard’s respected attempt at Pride and Prejudice (1940). In the fifty-five years between the release of Leonard’s Greer Garson vehicle and Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s admirers curiously had to make do with less than a dozen British television miniseries. Yet, all of a sudden, six Austen adaptations appeared in the space of two years: including two television miniseries and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, a modernized revamp of Emma.
In hindsight, there was arguably no better choice suited to recreate Austen’s novel of impulse and reason. Ang Lee’s previous experience in family dramas and comedies offered a foundation for his exploration of the intra-familial dynamics affecting Austen’s Dashwood sisters. Furthermore, as Ang Lee has often suggested in interviews before and after the film’s release, his filmography has frequently touched on the conflicting tensions between 'sense' and 'sensibility': free will versus responsibility to others (Pushing Hands; Eat Drink Man Woman); the fulfillment of personal desires versus society’s moral codes (Lust, Caution; Brokeback Mountain; The Wedding Banquet).
Carved from Emma Thompson’s literary and eloquent script, Sense and Sensibility is a rare period adaptation that maintains the linguistic integrity of its source material. Thompson’s script respects the audience’s intelligence and rewards the patient viewer with delightful moments of ironic banter, melancholy and refinement. Released during the height of third wave feminism’s mid-nineties pop culture awareness, Sense and Sensibility incorporates a celebration of the independent-minded woman and the modern intellectual woman.
But in contrast to Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1994), Lee and Thompson do not overtly infuse external materials such as anachronistic language and contemporaneous concerns into the proceedings. Instead, both director and writer participate in a sensitive analysis of a woman’s societal role within the constrictions of Austen’s era. Thus, Austen’s overarching themes of sense and sensibility remain intact. Additionally, the film also faithfully observes the restrictions accorded to a woman’s autonomy and the separation between romance and material survival during the 19th century.
Noted for his graceful and immaculately detailed direction, Ang Lee maintains a rich emphasis on replicating the period down to the slightest minutiae: the mixture of elegant and demure costumes, the social politics and the damp verdant topiary. Lee also made countless visits to museums and art galleries to acquire visual ideas. Subsequently, the painterly compositions accrued by cinematographer Michael Coulter are reminiscent of the Romanticist landscape paintings of John Constable and J.M.W Turner. Unlike in other period dramas, Lee’s film does not give into the temptation to indulge in bombast and stuffiness. The mood is sweeping, but not overbearing.
The two lead female performances are also subtle and natural in their feel, an aspect doubtlessly attained from the director’s yearning for both actresses to immerse themselves in the context of their roles. Off-screen Winslet and Thompson were roomed together to build a sisterly relationship with one another, while the former was instructed to read 19th century literature in order to understand the era’s emotions and culture.
Lee’s accomplished maneuver reaps dividends through the pair's outstanding performances: Thompson, demure and repressed; Winslet, energetic and naïve. Disappointingly, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant do not live up to their end of the bargain. The former laboriously chews through his dialogue; the latter simply plays Hugh Grant. The two male leads are possibly the film’s biggest drawback having neither the verve, nor the complex emotional range offered by either Thompson or Winslet.
A major critical and commercial success upon on its initial release, Sense and Sensibility transformed the careers of several of its stars (Winslet, Grant and Rickman) and marked the film’s chameleonic director as one of contemporary cinema’s most elegant and reliable voices. Despite its conventional direction and resistance to historical revisionism, Sense and Sensibility often flourishes as a polished and entertaining period drama due to the film’s two lead actresses and Lee’s delicate sophistication.  Since Sense and Sensibility, Lee has gone on to direct better and more stylized films. But few of his subsequent creations have endeared to the masses and inspired so many imitators as this wistful adaptation.