by Kristin Battestella
It's an unpopular take, but Sense and Sensibility is really a terrible story. How does no one else see it? Allow me to summarize director Ang Lee's (Crouching Tiger, HiddenDragon) 1995 adaptation of the Jane Austen novel as thus:
Brother John Dashwood (James Fleet) and his snobbish wife Fanny (Harriet Walter) cast out his late father's (Tom Wilkinson) second wife (Gemma Jones) and his three half-sisters to live off cousins in what they think is a meager, destitute humble in a delicious three story cottage with servants, picturesque views, and neighborly gentry. To escape this supposed squalor and regain their financial status, the only option is for one of the daughters to marry well. Eldest Elinor (Emma Thompson) becomes esteemed with her sister-in-law's brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), head over heels in their stiff upper lip after one country visit while middle daughter Marianne (Kate Winslet) throws herself at the enchanting John Willoughby (Greg Wise) after he touches her sprained ankle in a scandalous rescue in the rain. Poetry, picnics, locks of hair – it all seems like a marriage is in the bag until Willoughby is cast out by his wealthy country relations. Marianne continues to pathetically write a bunch of unanswered letters, throwing herself at him during a ball as high society whispers behind the backs of these reeking of desperation Dashwood ladies who really don't know how to pick men. Two hundred year old book spoiler alert – smooth talker Willoughby got a girl pregnant, so instead of making right by her, he's marrying another rich lady to cover his costs. Viewers are meant to feel sad by the fact that the one of his count 'em three women her really loves is Marianne, but clearly she does not love herself, just like Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs), who's been secretly engaged to Edward– yes, Elinor's awkward enchantment – for five years. At this point, it feels like the audience need a flow chart to follow these ironic inter-relations as more cousins, in-laws, and families threatening to disinherited men who marry penniless women enter the crowded narrative.
Elinor, Marianne, and Lucy go off with more rich, distantly related folks as all everyone seems to do is invite people over to gossip and play matchmaker or reveal secrets to people they hardly know. They enter, greet, bow, curtsy, sit for five minutes of discomfort and misunderstandings before abruptly standing and suddenly departing. Carriage distances make these grand estates seem so far apart that it takes a day's rest to travel, yet the men for whom the women pine manage to speed to and fro on horseback at will – remaining absentee crushes for most of the two hours plus. Lucy is taken in by that snobby sister-in-law Fanny because The Ferrars don't know about the secret engagement and toss her out once they do hear of it, but Lucy takes a liking to Edward's younger brother Robert (Richard Lumsden) anyway. Marianne, meanwhile, ends up sick with a fever because she ran out in a storm so Willoughby could literally be her hill to die on, and her convalescence kicks another set of loosely related wealthy neighbors The Palmers (Hugh Laurie and Imelda Staunton) out of their own house. This time, Marianne was rescued by Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), another nearby gent who's been moon eyeing at her while she looks the other way at the heroic shadow of cad Willoughby. Brandon, you see, couldn't tell Marianne that the girl Willoughby knocked up was his ward – at least not until it's time to dump the stiff upper lip excuses, contrived suspense, and backdoor connected secrets on long suffering and heavy burdened Elinor, who's saving her lip tremble for hearing that Lucy is now Mrs. Ferrars. Of course, Lucy isn't Edward's Mrs. Ferrars, but Elinor doesn't get that memo. With fifteen minutes left, Edward finally shows up once more to tell Elinor what he should have said in the first dang place, which would have saved us all from one lame ass misunderstanding. Now, there can be a double wedding; the Dashwood women are no longer so desperate nor destitute, just relying on different men for their money and maybe happiness. Marianne has learned to like the Colonel after all and Elinor and Edward have apparently overcome their communication problem. Bravo, I guess.
Despite trying on numerous occasions, I've never made it all the way through Sense and Sensibility in one sitting. Why do I keep trying to catch the whole thing in bits and spurts? I can't lie, I just like looking at all the Regency costumes. Disliking the supposedly charming story also doesn't mean one hates on these ladies. Emilie Francois (Now with a PHD you go girl) as youngest sister Margaret is, unfortunately, pretty much an afterthought. The potential for youthful spying to find the truth about what's not been intimated or speaking bluntly to ask the right damn questions of these bumbling men is not used to full advantage. Likewise Margaret's spirited reckless but possible sense of what's what remains underutilized as a positive example that perhaps the titular best of both her sisters can be embodied together, and if she's not there for any future hopeful, viewers may wonder why she's here at all. Thankfully, we all love Kate Winslet's (Titanic) flustered cheeks and wispy tendrils as Marianne, the perfect Regency rose. The audience wants her to be happy in love, escaping these crappy social circumstances with whatever throwing herself at a guy it's going to take. The whirlwind, butterflies in the stomach, heartbreak, and tears remain relatable. We're protective of these ladies, so whatever bug's up Sense and Sensibility's butt, we don't fault screenwriter Emma Thompson (Howards End) in doing the best she could – earning an Adapted Screenplay Oscar and other acclaim for pairing down the obnoxious for love or money trite into something streamlined and mildly bemusing thanks to the Dashwood femininity. In spite of the intertwined back and forth mistaken jolly goods with too many characters' hands in the pot, we enjoy how our screenwriter also pulls off a Best Actress nominated restrained performance. Elinor is the oldest, the responsible, good sister taking care of everyone else but herself. Everyone else is allowed to be problematic, and the culmination of the movie isn't so much that her dang love interest comes clean, but that Elinor expresses herself after spending all her time bottling up her emotions alongside everyone else's crying and secrets. Ironically, the self-insertion from Austen writing in her first published novel about what she knows as a woman stuck under the misogynistic Regency's thumb is a bit too much life imitating art. She never got a happy marital ending, so it's doubly ironic that Dame Thompson ended up marrying Greg “Willoughby” Wise in real life. Touché. Sadly however, Gemma Jones' (MI-5) Mrs. Dashwood misses the opportunity to capitalize on being witty and Dame Maggie on Downton sassy, remaining passive and accepting of the circumstances rather than standing up for her daughters by worming the bullshit out of the men. Instead mother Mrs. Jennings Elisabeth Spriggs (A Christmas Carol) and daughter Mrs. Palmer Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter) carry the matchmaker quirky, because in Sense and Sensibility, only once a woman has married rich and spend her youth is she allowed to be a busybody eccentric.
Like Diana Ross said in Mahogany, the men of Sense and Sensibility, however, ain't shit. All of them. Too many named John and multiples with the same last name acerbate the wash out male confusion, leaving every conversation with the opposite sex laden by a Who's on First back and forth. While this can start off bemusing for some, it inevitably ends up so, so tiring for most. We wouldn't put up with this crap, so it's infuriating that our girls have to settle for this patriarchal, pussyfooting gentry. Wise's Willoughby is supposed to be the most handsome therefore he drops the most poon in his wake, yet we don't even see him most of the time. In Sense and Sensibility, the men's roles are more about how the women have built up the intimations while pining for the gents in their absence. Again, we're supposed to like Hugh Grant's (Four Weddings and a Funeral, which as Al Bundy said, is really just five of the same thing.) Edward Ferrars because he's befuddling charming with our Elinor, but it's just too damn awkward in his bathroom break and you miss him handful of scenes. Did the whirlwind actually happened or was all love goggles? Even Edward's collars and jackets looks too big for him as he hunches over and mumbles something honorable enough to get a passing grade. Visually, Alan Rickman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) is the upstanding opposite as Colonel Brandon literally on his high horse when not taking his own friend zone shit from Marianne. Why is he bothering when she won't give him the time of day? The Colonel with no first name seems more suited in temperament with Elinor, but these secret keeping wallflowers only exchange help or whispers as needed rather then develop something more – never mind that in the book, Brandon is over thirty and Marianne is supposed to be a teenager. o_O Whipped brother James Fleet (Death Comes to Pemberley) is there so his wife Harriet Walter (Little Dorrit) can have her only power through him, and Imogen Stubbs (Twelfth Night) as Lucy Steele is likewise defined as villainous because she is competing in the same shallow gentry pool. Poor domesticated Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager) is the man around the most, surrounded by the increasing number of flustered skirts his wife and mother-in-law invite into his home with only a newspaper and a few witty jabs to shield him. Obviously, there is a specific decorum and social control in Sense and Sensibility – men had all the financial and marital rights, remaining responsible for all their nearest women. However, that doesn't mean they had to be spineless dicks about it. Is this a twenty-first century perspective on a two hundred year old story? Yes, but with so much acclaim on the supposed romance herein, one keeps watching for a timeless characterization that isn't there. Instead of worthwhile men to our ladies, the males are all bloated and self-important, and it's tough to find the men are weak meta bemusing because it's true.
Thankfully Sense and Sensibility's Regency costumes, feathers, cravats, and gems are divine. Particularly now in a pandemic re-watch when it's been all pajamas with no need to dress up; the breezy frocks, purposeful yet pretty bonnets, and warm shawls provide elegance with their simple Greco-Roman revival touches as well as about the manor house comforting. Likewise, the landscaped estates, country cottages, and London town houses have candles, antiques, fireplaces, woodwork, and craftsmanship be they lavish or seemingly meager. Sense and Sensibility is bright with open spaces and sunny picnics. It's the typical English countryside ideal, yet all these dang people are so gosh darn unhappy about their expansive homes and picturesque views. It's such a chore apparently to ride on beautiful horses or in delicious carriages, going back and forth between neighbors when not breaking out the quills and inkwells and writing letters saying you are on your way. After all, there isn't much else to do when not reading idyllic poetry to escalate the socially unreciprocated yearning. Although right now, we can't even go over to a distant relation's mansion and kick them out of their own place when we get a fever, so I guess the grass is always greener amirite. Unpopular opinion or not, even an ardent Austen fan must admit Sense and Sensibility is a saccharin for love or money story with stupid guys who can't say what they mean, relatable in their pent up waiting women, and heaps of misunderstands going round and round on each intertwined couple. It's musical chairs until time's up and somebody finally tells who they love for real for reals – or at least learned to like for all their material assets.
Growing up reading Jane Austen, I always felt her books end up saying the same dang thing, and after all these tries, this Sense and Sensibility's main redeeming value is ultimately it's pretty dressings. I can't lie, when I'm in those Regency frocks feelings, I often fall asleep watching this on mute. The lack of sound makes one realize how this terrible who likes whom social confusion and heartache over nothing derivative can be so readily deduced. Even the British decorum hindrances permeate without hearing a word, rightly or wrongly indicative of the expected Austen same old, same old. I guess if it takes you dozens of times to see one adaptation, you really have seen them all. I'm utterly flummoxed how Sense and Sensibility's terrible story and time wasting bore – and possibly sleep inducing pace – can be so beloved. Sorry! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯