Sense and Sensibility (1995)
Written by Emma Thompson
Directed by Ang Lee
I am not against Jane Austen, I just do not find her style of writing matches with my personal aesthetic and narrative tastes. That said, I really enjoyed the tone of this year’s Emma adaptation with all of the stylistic flourishes that the director brought. 1995’s Sense and Sensibility feels exceptionally flat in its presentation. I think Ang Lee is a pretty good filmmaker, not the best in the world, but he has made movies I’ve enjoyed or at least find interesting. The actors in this film aren’t bad at all, some fantastic performers, but I was never drawn in by the story they were telling. If this is a movie you love, then, by all means, love it, it may just not be for me.
Mr. Dashwood is on his deathbed and tells his son, John, to take care of his stepmother and her three daughters. John and his wife decide otherwise after the old man’s passing and send word to Mrs. Dashwood that she and her children will need to leave the estate as soon as possible. Mrs. Dashwood’s eldest Elinor (Emma Thompson) falls for her aunt’s brother, Edward (Hugh Grant), who visits during the transition. A cousin offers the Dashwoods a home in a cottage on his estate, and they accept the invitation. In this new village, middle child Marianne (Kate Winslet) is placed between two possible suitors, the older Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) and the younger, more traditionally dashing Mr. Willoughby. Lots of social misunderstandings occur, and relationships begin, end, restart, and so on.
The inciting moments of the first act had me interested to see where the story was going. The conflict between Mrs. Dashwood and her step-son & daughter-in-law seemed like great fodder for a story. But the presentation of the story was so mannered and restrained that any tension just felt silly and diffused. I get that this is the structure of Austen stories, but it leaves the human elements of the story feeling lukewarm. I can’t help compare this to 2020’s Emma, where the same type of tale was presented with visuals that communicated wit and sharp humor. I’m not an Austen expert, but I’m guessing Emma is just a better novel from the start than Sense & Sensibility?
I think Ang Lee, as a director, is a smart choice. His cultural background is one where significant expressions of emotion in middle-class familial situations is not exactly encouraged. I think of the film The Farewell, where the death of a family member is viewed not as a time to express grief but to internalize that emotional pain and keep it to yourself. The middle-class culture in England was also quite austere, so it’s a good match. There is the element of passion seen through the daughters, the most energetic characters in the story, but it feels immature and only centered on finding a man to marry.
That was where I had trouble caring about the stakes of the movie. The main problem in the film is that the two eldest daughters desire to marry for love, yes, but also because the culture of the time prohibited women from living independently. Luckily, they find suitors who won’t abuse them and will provide them with the security they desire. Maybe this is because I am male, and I do understand the place of women in the patriarchy at that time, but the story didn’t seem to challenge anything about this culture. I wanted to see these actors’ wit shining on-screen, but it never happened, the narrative just plodding along, ending how I expected to from as soon as the female leads met their male partners. Maybe it’s unfair to compare this production with other Austen pictures, but I would recommend Emma over this film any day.