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Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen's funniest book; Emma Thompson's greatest triumph.

Alan A. Stone

When critics produced their lists of the best films of 1995, many included both Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. Despite their common critical acclaim, these "Jane Austen films" are very different from one another: Persuasion, a low-budget Sony Classics film with unknown actors (see my review in the last issue of Boston Review); Sense and Sensibility, a Hollywood production with marquee names. More fundamentally, they provide intriguingly different interpretations of Jane Austen's texts: Persuasion is the Ingmar Bergman version of Jane Austen's last novel; Sense and Sensibility is the Monty Python version of her first. Most sophisticated moviegoers recognize that film does not permit the exact replication of a novel. Translations from page to screen are always problematic, and the creative screenwriter and director want to present their own interpretation. The slavish reproduction of a sacred text, even a Shakespeare play, is impossible, and in any case unrewarding. Still, the highest test of a new interpretation of a classic novel is not only that it makes a good film; it must also preserve the spirit of the original work, and that is the triumph of Sense and Sensibility. Some critics consider Persuasion the superior film, but in my judgment it fails this fundamental test. Nicholas Dear's Bergman-esque version of Jane Austen was a triumph of English theatricality over literary genius. His treatment of the novel had the heroine, Anne Elliot, discovering her own voice and becoming empowered, thereby saving herself and winning the man she loved. I assumed that such an assertive, transformed, un-Austenian heroine was necessary to make Jane Austen acceptable to contemporary audiences. So I expected -- as I said in my
review of Persuasion -- that Sense and Sensibility would bring us "yet another empowered heroine and precious little of Jane Austen's astonishing gift."

I was delighted to be proven wrong.
The high-budget film with its screenplay by Emma Thompson brilliantly celebrates
the spirit of Jane Austen and her heroines. Lindsay Doran, who produced Sense and Sensibility, claims she knew when she was 22 that the novel would make a great movie; it had all the necessary ingredients: "Wonderful characters, a strong love story (actually three strong love stories), surprising plot twists, good jokes, relevant themes, and a heart-stopping ending." This sounds like the Hollywood formula for commercial success, but Doran's beloved Professor Kowenheven, who kindled her interest in Jane Austen when Doran was a student at Barnard, would surely have been appalled by this description of Sense and Sensibility. Nonetheless, Doran's commentary provides part of the answer to the success of both Jane Austen films -- they did not treat the text as sacred. In fact, both ignored the element in Jane Austen's work on which her claim to literary immortality rests -- her narrative voice. Jane Austen's characters sometimes lack psychological depth and moral substance, but her novels never do. It is her narrator -- describing and commenting, dissecting her characters, their foibles, flaws, and virtues -- that has earned Jane Austen her literary reputation. Intellectually precocious teen-age girls who love Jane Austen are drawn not so much to her heroines, most of whom are limited by their innocence, but to the narrator who reaches out to their precocity with an enviable demonstration of wit and wisdom. Lindsay Doran read Pride and Prejudice when she was thirteen and, apparently not precocious enough, decided that the five sisters were all "stupid" and that Jane Austen was a "stupid" writer. Nine years later, having learned from Professor Kowenheven, she understood the narrator and changed her opinion.

Austen's narrator is of course Jane Austen herself. Reading one of her novels is like being in her presence; plot and character are almost secondary. Jane Austen comes alive on the pages, speaking directly to the reader, sharing her confidences. One might say that Jane Austen sometimes gossips with the reader about her characters. But it is a highly refined, amusing, and elevated form of gossip, a moral scrutiny of private behavior. Her characters grow in the light of the narrator's reflections and judgments about them. Here is the
narrator commenting on Marianne, the sister who embodies the "Sensibility" of the title, as she discovers that her sister Elinor has suffered a loss of love as great as her own, but has behaved far better:

She [Marianne] felt all the force
of that comparison; but not as her sister had hoped, to urge her to exertion now; she felt it with all the pain of continual self-reproach,
regretted more bitterly that she
had never exerted herself before;
but it brought only the torture of
penitence without the hope of amendment.

And here is her description of Willoughby, the man who gains Marianne's love and abandons her the moment he is expected to propose:

Her [Elinor's] thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a feeling, affectionate temper. The world had made him extravagant and vain -- extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish. Vanity, while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least its offspring necessity, had required to be sacrificed. Each faulty propensity in leading him to evil, had led him likewise to punishment. The
attachment, from which against honour, against feeling, against every better interest he had outwardly torn himself, now, when no longer allowable, governed every thought; and the connection, for the sake of which he had, with little scruple, left her sister to misery, was likely to prove a source of unhappiness to himself of a far more incurable nature.

As these lines demonstrate, Jane Austen
belonged to an age when it was the order of things that psychology and morality were woven together in the fabric of human nature and no one believed, as we have for most of this century, that they could be torn asunder. Austen's categories "Sense and Sensibility" are like Kant's "Reason and Passion" -- an ambitious intellectual agenda is worked out inside this frothy story. And the aspiration of that agenda is not that Sensibility merely succumb to Sense, but rather that they be reconciled. Ros Ballaster's excellent introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of Sense and Sensibility links the concept of sensibility to Wollstonecraft's feminist argument that "women are enslaved to the aesthetic gratifications of a weak and trembling sensibility in order to maintain their dependence on the male sex." And as Ballaster realizes, this kind of sensibility leads to a kind of selfishness which induces women either to neglect or indulge their children.

Kant espoused the idea of sensibility as a virtue in women: "Feminine virtue or vice is very different from masculine virtue or vice, not only in kind but also in motive. She is expected to be patient; he must be tolerant. She is sensitive; he is perceptive [emphasis added]." Jane Austen breaks through this barrier reef of gender stereotyping. Although her Marianne is the paradigm of sensibility, so, too, is Willoughby, Marianne's first great love. And Elinor is one of Jane Austen's most "perceptive" heroines; she comes closest to being the embodiment of this "tolerant" author, whose perceptions about the moral/psychological situation of her characters gives readers an outlook on the human circumstance sub specie aeternitatis. It is true that she lived during the French and American revolutions and Napoleonic Wars and she says nothing about politics in her novels. And despite modern attempts to reconstruct her work as deeply satirical of the social class system, she seems to have accepted the social hierarchy if not all of those who held undeserved places in it. All of this is very clear in Sense and Sensibility, but the work achieves greatness through its moral and psychological insights. The film's strategy for capturing this depth, the essence of Austen's wit, is part of its
special magic.

With Jane Austen's narrator out of the picture, Emma Thompson needed another device to engage viewers, and she found it in Monty Python. According to Thompson -- whose published version of her screenplay and diary of the film-making provide insight about the contribution of Taiwanese director Ang Lee to the final product -- Jane Austen's juvenilia "are more like Monty Python skits than anything else" and she takes the view that Austen's novels are "wickedly funny." She is right, and Sense and Sensibility may be one of the funniest; it is certainly the most light-hearted. Much of the plot depends on silly mistakes and misunderstandings, as when Elinor and her family are allowed to believe that the man she loves, Edward Ferrars, has married. The Mr. Ferrars who has married is his brother Robert. And the Jane Austen narrator is often wickedly funny. Here she is describing the scheming, social-climbing Lucy, who ends up with Robert Ferrars and his family money: "They passed some months in great happiness at Dawlish; for she had many relations and old acquaintances to cut." And again: "The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest and unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with
no other sacrifice than that of time and

Emma Thompson's broad humor reading of Sense and Sensibility goes too far and more obviously dominates her published screenplay than the finished film. She begins her script with the father, Mr. Dashwood, on his deathbed telling his soon-to-be widow, "Make sure [Elinor] finds a good husband. The men are such noodles hereabouts, little wonder none has pleased her." She ends her script with the marriage of Marianne: "The groom, as is the custom of the time, throws a large handful of sixpences into the crowd . . . One hits Fanny [like Lucy another avaricious female villain of the story] in the eye. She reels and falls over backwards into a gorse bush." Fortunately for Emma Thompson, director Ang Lee seems to have played the role of "Sense" to her "Sensibility" and smoothed down these and some of her other over-broad Monty Python inventions. The "noodle" line was dropped, and the avaricious Fanny is shown gesticulating to her wealthy husband to pick up some of the sixpence which are intended for the children. Thompson, in the diary that accompanies her screenplay, generously credits Ang Lee and everyone involved, but this film is her triumph, and Doran's greatest stroke was in selecting her as the screenwriter. Early in her film career, it seemed as though Emma Thompson was being carried by her husband, Kenneth Branagh, a man who was ready to fill Lawrence Olivier's shoes. Branagh is a magnificent actor, but in Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing he seemed younger and prettier than his wife. Together with him on the screen, she seemed miscast. As the Princess of France in Henry V, she looked more like his English maiden aunt than his French bride, and Branagh's foppish interpretation of his role in Much Ado made her Beatrice seem misgendered. Emma Thompson proved her own merit in her Oscar-winning performance in Howard's End, and may have been even better in Remains of the Day. In both, her co-star was Anthony Hopkins and their special screen chemistry was reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Two of Emma Thompson's scenes with Hopkins have rooted in my memory. In both films, Anthony Hopkins plays a man of repressed emotions. In Howard's End, he proposes to Emma Thompson in a manner more appropriate to a business transaction. She walks over and kisses him on the cheek in a gesture both appropriate to his offer and yet transforming the moment in the spirit of love. Then there is an unforgettable struggle in Remains of the Day when she as the chief housekeeper wrestles out of the hidebound butler's hands the romantic novel he is trying to conceal. Surely the actors improvised this scene, with its overtones of a frustrated sexual encounter.

Thompson, like Hepburn, has a tom-boyish quality and a forward manner that is underlined but softened by the strong male aura an actor such as Hopkins can generate. And Thompson, like Hepburn, brings out the vulnerable child in the gruff man. Hepburn was able to catalyze much the same on-screen chemistry with other male leads, notably Humphrey Bogart in the classic African Queen; and John Wayne, a journeyman actor who always played himself, owes his only Oscar, for True Grit, to that chemistry. Thompson, however, has neither Hepburn's patrician face to fall back on nor the same good fortune in her leading men. In her recent title role of Carrington she plays the frustrated lover of Lytton Strachey, a gay man who is sexually repelled by women. Jonathan Pryce is a marvelous actor but there is meant to be no chemistry between them.

Emma Thompson has the face of a character actress and the raw-boned stature of a farm wife; only her talent has made her a leading lady. Nothing in her physical appearance or past repertoire would have prepared the 36-year-old actress for the role of the 19-year-old Miss Elinor Dashwood, a girl of "delicate complexion, regular features and a remarkably pretty figure." Early in her television career she was a comedienne; on stage, Branagh cast her as the fool in King Lear and as the intransigent and complaining Helena in Midsummer Night's Dream; and neither the housekeeper in Remains of the Day nor Margaret Schlegel in Howard's End was meant to be a beautiful ingénue. Compounding her problem, Kate Winsett, who is 19 years old and looks it, was cast as Marianne, the 17-year-old younger sister. Ang Lee apparently pressed Emma Thompson to take the part; but I suspect that the commercial hand of Lindsay Doran was also at work and that Emma Thompson did not require much convincing.

Can a 36-year-old actress play the role of a 19-year-old? Obviously not -- she records in her diary that one of her earliest notes from Ang Lee when the filming began says, "Don't look so old." She reports that it took her two hours to take off her makeup, but in the film she still looks closer to 40 than 20. Emma Thompson succeeds in the role of Elinor not because she brings this beautiful and sensible 19-year-old to life but because Elinor is an amalgam of the heroine and Jane Austen herself. More than in any of her other novels, large chunks of Sense and Sensibility are told in the third person -- by Elinor. From time to time the impersonal narrator speaks in more caustic or philosophical tones, but the sensible and compassionate Elinor often sees things as Jane Austen would. Thompson's vulnerable face speaks eloquently in the movie for that third person voice of the novel. In some scenes, Elinor looks more like Marianne's mother than her sister, and there are moments when her gangly homeliness cannot be disguised. Yet somehow, Thompson's performance gains from all of this. Indeed, from my perspective, her performance is responsible for putting Jane Austen on screen. Sense and Sensibility improves on second viewing -- as you recognize its construction, and the contributions of director Ang Lee and editor Tim Squyres, who worked with Lee on his two previous films, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. I have already mentioned Lee's restraining influence on Thompson's slapstick Monty Python inventions. There are other touches which, although supposedly historically appropriate for British society, suggest Ang Lee's Taiwanese background. When the men and women of Sense and Sensibility meet there is a moment of recognition and after a noticeable pause everyone bows. If the English of that class and station bowed I doubt they did it in this skipped beat manner which draws attention to the ritualized aspect of their deferential gesture. The director seems to have choreographed the actors so that their ritualized movements supply Austen's missing voice. The Dashwood sisters, for example, are forever assuming poses in anticipation of their male visitors; by assuming those positions, they provide commentary on the situation. Emma Thompson recognized that she would have to cut the novel ruthlessly to make her screenplay. Characters and scenes are omitted, but she and Lee, unlike the makers of Persuasion, have constructed a film unscarred by editorial surgery. We understand that Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters (two in the novel) must survive on two servants (three in the novel) in a cottage instead of a Manor House. Elinor is the eldest and the "sense" of her family while her mother and Marianne are creatures of "sensibility." The crucial question is how the two older girls, deprived of their wealth and status, will find husbands. By a set of complicated fortuities that occur not as a result of self-assertion or empowerment, Elinor and Marianne end up with quite appropriate husbands, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon.

Neither of these male characters are fully developed in the film, but if truth be told Jane Austen did not do very well by them either. The man whose character is most carefully elaborated is Mr. Willoughby (Greg Wise). Willoughby is Marianne's first love and her counterpart in a sensibility that leads to selfishness. Jane Austen's Edward Ferrars was a student at Oxford which is appropriate for his unformed character in the novel. But once Emma Thompson was cast as Elinor, her Edward had to be older than befits this young man's occupation. Hugh Grant's Edward is left treading water somewhere in the life-cycle and his role can legitimately be criticized as totally unrealistic, though his acting cannot be faulted. Emma Thompson and Ang Lee recognized the problems inherent in Austen's character and finessed them by giving Grant almost no lines. His Edward Ferrars is entirely established by his uncertain body language and gestures. Emma Thompson had little more chemistry with him than she had with Kenneth Branagh and one can wonder what a sensible woman like Elinor sees in him.

Thompson's screenplay partially solves this problem by inventing a third younger sister, Margaret Dashwood, a tomboy. Edward Ferrars, by charming Margaret in the film, proves his worth to Elinor. But in the film, as in the book, Edward is simply so much better than the rest of his grasping and self-interested family that he becomes estimable.

Colonel Brandon is another matter entirely. Jane Austen created in him one of her most far-fetched but benevolent characters. However, Alan Rickman is not the benevolent type. He made his stage reputation as the sinister Le Vicomte de Valmont in the superb London and Broadway production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and will be known to American filmgoers as the villain of Bruce Willis' Die Hard. His brooding psychological portrayal of the generous if mysterious Colonel Brandon who eventually marries Marianne can certainly be faulted. But Jane Austen bears responsibility for the 17-year-old girl's love for a man who is more than twice her age. Austen agreed with Kant that "A young, intelligent wife will have better luck in marriage with a healthy but nevertheless noticeably older man." In Emma, she has her greatest heroine make the same kind of choice. If there are faults in the film of Sense and Sensibility, they can also be found in the novel. Thus, the social world portrayed by the film is totally unrealistic. But the same can be said of all Jane Austen's novels. She cut out the piece of the human condition that she best understood and, examining it in the magnifying light of her wit, demonstrated an understanding in which all of us are reflected. Moreover, some may find Jane Austen's depiction of love unbelievable. But her comic novel is an examination of love, not a demonstration. If you believe that love is a matter of psychology, and psychology a matter of science, then you will have no use for Jane Austen's examination. But if you believe that love is the human experience that demonstrates beyond question the conjunction of psychology and morality, then you can begin to appreciate Austen's insights. And sometimes the film does degenerate into farce. The most notable of its unforgivable moments comes when the two avaricious women, Fanny (Harriet Walter) and Lucy (Imogen Stubbs), are using each other for self-interested purposes. Lucy then confides in Fanny her secret relationship to Fanny's brother. A huge explosion follows, with the outraged Fanny tweaking Lucy's nose. No doubt the scene was improvised; the nose-tweaking is neither in Jane Austen's novel nor in Emma Thompson's script. That said, most of the humor is true to Jane Austen's wit, which in any event must be translated from words to pictures.

Although it will seem bizarre to those who treasure Jane Austen, two aspects of the film struck me as improvements on the novel. After Marianne is jilted she becomes very ill and almost dies of a fever. Elinor nurses her as in the novel, but in the film there is an invented moment on the night of medical crisis. Elinor grasps Marianne's hand and in a tone half prayerful and half imperious asks her sister to get well. Then, kissing the hand, she begs Marianne not to die and "leave me alone." If Jane Austen was unable to give a realistic portrayal of love between a man and a woman -- perhaps she did not believe in it -- she certainly believed in family love and love between sisters. Emma Thompson, in that invented moment (it is in her script), found a way to convey Jane Austen's deepest feelings -- for which the great novelist never found a direct form of words.

Finally there is the weightier matter of the relationship between Sense and Sensibility and Reason and Passion. In this novel, Jane Austen seems to take the Kantian position that passion must be tamed by reason -- Marianne's sensibility by Elinor's sense. That is most certainly Elinor's view. Some passages in the novel, however, hint that Elinor's "sense" has caused her to behave in such a restrained manner that the man she loved was misled to her detriment. Indeed, Edward Ferrars tells her as much. This is where Jane Austen has a lesson for Kant: reason devoid of passion is as unfortunate as passion devoid of reason. Lee and Thompson seem to have understood this, and their understanding is reflected in Thompson's stunning performance.

There will be glory enough for everyone involved in this film. Lindsay Doran, who pushed the idea of making Sense and Sensibility on Mirage and Sidney Pollack, deserves all the credit she can get. Her beloved Professor Kowenheven, wherever he is, must be proud of her.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review


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