Sense and Sensibility: 1995 Movie Adaptation

This is one of my reviews for the ‘Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge 2011’ hosted by Laurel Ann of Austenprose. (Here is my introductory post: ‘By a Lady’.)

The 1995 movie version of Sense and Sensibility is an enjoyable film. It manages to be quite good, despite several odd elements.

In the movie, Elinor tells Margaret that “houses go from father to son … not from father to daughter”. The only reason that Norland went to their brother John is because their uncle entailed it to him. Otherwise Henry Dashwood would have been able to leave it to his wife and daughters, which he probably would have done since his son John already had a fortune left to him by his mother. There are plenty of women with property in the book. Mrs. Ferrars’s fortune is completely at her disposal, and she was able easily to cut Edward out of her will. She could have just as easily cut Robert out as well and left everything to Fanny (as Elinor suspected she might do after Robert married against Mrs. Ferrars’s wishes). Mrs. Smith (called Lady Allen in the movie) owns Allenham, which she plans on leaving to Willoughby. When he displeases her, however, she disinherits him. Even Mrs. Jennings has some money left her by her husband, and the elder Eliza Williams had such a large fortune that her guardian coerced her into marrying his elder son to get possession of it. The conversation between Elinor and Edward in the film, where she tells him that he will inherit his fortune, while she can’t even earn hers, is something of a continuation of this theme. Of course, Edward’s mother ends up disinheriting him (he does have two thousand pounds of his own, however), while, in the book at least, Elinor has a fortune of one thousand pounds from her uncle.

The other big oddity I noticed, was how poor the Dashwoods are made. In the movie they can’t afford beef or sugar. In the book they were poor, but not paupers. They couldn’t afford to keep a horse (with the subsequent expenses of another servant, a horse for the servant, &c.) and Mrs. Dashwood sold her carriage. However, in the book she actually considered building on to their cottage! If they were starving, or even having to go without beef and sugar, she would never have even thought about such an expense as building.

Another strange change that was made was dropping Willoughby’s visit to Cleveland to explain himself. This in itself isn’t so strange, as what they chose to put in instead. In the movie Colonel Brandon tells Elinor that he has learned from Lady Allen (i.e. Mrs. Smith) that Willoughby did mean to propose to Marianne. This is rather odd, as, in the first place, Willoughby never told Lady Allen that he was planning on proposing to Marianne. In the second place, if Lady Allen had known about Willoughby’s behaviour to Marianne, she would probably have let him marry her (in the book she forgives him and reinstates him as her heir because of his marriage to a woman of character). And, finally, what was Lady Allen doing telling Colonel Brandon about all of this anyway?

There are other changes. Marianne’s illness is made much more serious in the film than it was in the book — probably for dramatic effect. In the book, the doctor never thinks that Marianne is in any danger of dying. In a dramatic addition, Colonel Brandon is shown carrying an almost unconscious Marianne in the rain over a great distance into the house at Cleveland. Artistic license, I guess. Another interesting addition in this movie is a scene where Edward attempts to tell Elinor about his engagement — a scene which never takes place in the book. As is common in adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, scenes have been added in an attempt to bring the heroes more to the front.

Of course, there are many deletions from the novel, to fit the movie into such a short time slot. A number of characters are dropped. Young Harry Dashwood, Lady Middleton and her children, and Anne Steele are all excluded, as is any reference to Colonel Brandon’s older brother. (That latter deletion changes Colonel Brandon’s back story a great deal as Eliza is made penniless to explain why he could not marry her.)

Quite a few scenes from the book are also edited, or simply dropped. Some of the ruder doings of Willoughby and Marianne, for example, are dropped (e.g. going to visit Allenham alone with Mrs. Smith/Lady Allen in the house). They are made self-absorbed enough, however, that those particular deletions are hardly noticeable.

On the positive side, this is a beautiful movie with some great acting. All of the actors were superb. As has been stated many times, Emma Thompson was much too old to play the part of nineteen year old Elinor Dashwood, but she does such a good job acting her, that it is not difficult to overlook this. Kate Winslet completely epitomized Marianne Dashwood. She is beautiful, charming, sweet, passionate, inconsiderate, honest, impulsive, pathetic, and everything else that Marianne is. The comic characters (e.g. Sir John Middleton, Mrs. Jennings, and Mr. and Mrs. Palmer) were fantastic. The men (Edward Ferrars, Colonel Brandon, and John Willoughby) were good, especially Greg Wise as Willoughby. Imogen Stubbs as Lucy Steele was perfect. I can’t think of a single character who was miscast. There have been complaints about Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, but I thought he did a fine job. Edward is supposed to be an awkward, reticent man.

The “chapter 2” scenes at the beginning, where Fanny Dashwood talks her husband out of helping his sisters, were done brilliantly. Mr. Palmer was wonderfully droll in his scenes. This movie is funny, as Jane Austen meant the story to be.

In The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay & Diaries (New York: Newmarket Press, 1996), Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay of the film, stated, “In nearly all the weepy scenes I’ve tried to get one good joke. Less indulgent.” (p. 266). This is quite effective, balancing humour and pathos beautifully. An example of this is the scene where a heartbroken Marianne reads Willoughby’s letter to Elinor. Mrs. Jennings comes in and suggests olives as something that might cheer her up. Mrs. Jennings’s bumbling good-nature keeps the scene from wallowing in tears too much, without lessening the effectiveness of Marianne’s sorrow.

This movie is visually very beautiful. The costumes, the houses, the scenery — all are lovely. Several of the costumes are very pretty indeed, and the scenery in particular is gorgeous.

Bad content is minimal in this film. There are several low cut gowns, a mention of a young woman being “passed from man to man”, and of another young woman having a child out of wedlock. Marianne’s illness may be frightening for small children. A woman pinches another woman’s nose and chases her from the house, and Sir John calls a pointer bitch, a pointer bitch.

I probably spent as much time on the points I disliked in this film as on the parts that I approved, but taking everything into account, I do like this movie — and it is the only version of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ that I have seen that I can say that about.

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This is a review of Sense and Sensibility, 1995 movie version, adapted by Emma Thompson.