Film Review: Sense and Sensibility (1995)

“People always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them”

Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility has aged rather well, a tribute to the efforts of its star and screenwriter Emma Thompson (along with countless others), and is probably one of the best big screen adaptations of any of Jane Austen’s works. It has a collection of performances that run counter to expectations – Alan Rickman makes a rare trip onto the good side as the compassionate Colonel Brandon, Kate Winslet has a raw freshness to her that makes for an ideal Marianne, and these were the days when Hugh Grant still had a suggestion of flexibility about his range as the decent Edward Ferrars.

And even when there aren’t too many surprises, Lee teases real emotion from his performers – Gemma Jones’ matriarch is full of aching emotion, a propensity echoed beautifully in Emma Thompson’s Elinor whose expressions of heartbreak and pain are just exquisite in their agony. In the smaller roles there’s delicious biting manipulation from Harriet Walter’s snobbish Fanny, riding roughshod over James Fleet’s John as they take over Norland; Imogen Stubbs finds a lovely delicacy in Lucy Steele; and it’s intriguing to see Imelda Staunton as a startling brash Charlotte Palmer, missing something of the subtlety we’re used to now from her.

The real interest in Thompson’s adaptation comes in the redefinition of the sisterly relationship as sense and sensibility become inverted and the reserved Elinor’s emotional journey becomes just as important, if not more so, than the impulsive Marianne’s. A firm hand is needed to effectively adapt novels for the screen, big or small, and Thompson is unafraid to jettison story strands and entire families of characters, and add her own embellishments to serve this version of the tale being told here and produce a wonderful piece of writing in its own right.

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