Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sense and Sensibility














SENSE AND SENSIBILITY            A-                   
USA  Great Britain  (136 mi)  1995  d:  Ang Lee 

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
     If this be error and upon me proved,
     I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

─William Shakespeare, Sonnett 116, Sonnet 116 - Shakespeare's Sonnets

Ang Lee, a Taiwanese director who acknowledged in interviews to having never read the Jane Austen novel upon which this is based, may seem like an odd choice to direct a British comedy of manners that is so thoroughly ensconced in early 19th century literature, as it’s his first film shot completely in English, as his first three efforts were shot in Mandarin Chinese, yet he proves to be a worthy choice, an ardent admirer of casting sweeping romance dramas in natural outdoor settings while retaining the poetic intimacy of complex personal relationships, so superbly rendered both here and a decade later in Brokeback Mountain (2005), while remaining an advocate of self-restraint, a character trait of the social period that is at the heart of the novel and film.  Lee visited museums and art galleries for visual ideas, turning to the British Romanticist landscape paintings of John Constable and J.M.W Turner, where cinematographer Michael Coulter matched the sweeping majesty of painterly compositions.  But like most British dramas, acting is the key ingredient, toned down here to match the atmospheric mood of strict social constraint.  Adapted by actress Emma Thompson, who spent five years writing and revising a screenplay, which eventually won her an Academy Award, she reshapes the novel by eliminating the narrator’s voice, which is largely that of Austen herself, while incorporating the author’s keen insights into the character of the elder sister, played, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Emma Thompson.  The film, as the title indicates mirrors the interior lives of the two oldest Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, who are ages 19 and 16 in the book, altered somewhat here to accommodate Thompson’s actual age of 36, while Winslet was 19.  Elinor’s elder status reflects a sensible and more reserved personality, perhaps past her marrying years, where she’s like a second mother looking after the interests of others, demonstrating a sense of duty, as she’s already assuming much of the responsibility when it comes to the behavior of the three sisters, also including a precocious young 13-year old Margaret (Emilie François), while the more indulgent and self-centered Marianne is allowed free expression of her feelings, completely at odds with her elder sister, both showing a strong intelligence, but Marianne accentuates her sensuous inclinations, singing songs at the piano, reading poetry, while openly expressing her opinions and exhibiting her love interests for all the world to see.  While they are decidedly different personalities, they couldn’t be closer, often confessing their secrets to one another or seen sleeping in the same bed.  It’s an open question whether one represents sense and the other sensibilities, or whether one triumphs over the other by the end, as the narrative pits the interest of both women’s lives happening simultaneously, each with their own romantic affairs, interweaving the interior drama through a series of unfolding events, much of which is expressed through letters.  While the book was published in 1811, the period in question is the last decade of the 18th century, where the girls had a sizeable means of support until the sudden death of the wealthy Henry Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) near the beginning of the story, where he makes his oldest son John (James Fleet), from his first marriage, promise to look after the financial interests of his second wife, Lady Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her three daughters.  While he most assuredly makes a deathbed promise, his odious wife Fanny (Harriet Walter) ultimately persuades him otherwise, offering them an annual stipend, undermining their position socially and financially, as they are forced to live below the means they have been accustomed to living.  Suddenly unwelcome in her own home at Norland Park, uprooted even from their bedrooms, Lady Dashwood is soon looking elsewhere for a new place of residence.  The Austen novel highlights the precarious position women found themselves in the 19th century, where a sudden shift in financial circumstances could lead to dire straits, completely altering one’s destiny.  Accordingly, women had no status except through marriage, where pressure was placed upon single women to marry into society.  Quickly moving into the household is Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), a quietly sensitive, overly shy and unassuming man (with almost no lines, so always appears ill at ease) who has received the best education, but in keeping with the times has no designs of immediate employment.  This idea that wealth is not earned but inherited through the firstborn male heir is discussed at some length, even in conversation between Elinor and Edward, where the options and restrictions are even more suffocating for women.

Elinor Dashwood:  You talk of feeling idle and useless. Imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever.
Edward Ferrars:  Our circumstances are therefore precisely the same.
Elinor Dashwood:  Except that you will inherit your fortune. We cannot even earn ours.

Lady Dashwood delays her plans, as Elinor quickly develops an attachment to Edward, where the two seem happy and well-suited, which Fanny soon notices and voices her disapproval, interrupting any time they spend together, eventually sending him away to London to prevent anything further from developing, an act that literally crushes Elinor’s spirit, but she refuses to show any emotion, especially to the spiteful Fanny, who naturally assumes the interest is motivated only by money rather than love.  This is a perfect example of Fanny’s narrow-minded crudeness, which stands in stark contrast to the more free-spirited lives of the Dashwood sisters, who were largely moved by Edward’s affection shown to young Margaret, winning her heart in the process as well, where she has a hard time dealing with his absence.  This generates a pattern of mysteriously absent men and the more accessible women, where the men are viewed almost as fantasy figures, gallant, elegant, and dashing, like the handsome prince in the fairy tales, where they remain somewhat sketchy and out of the action, often figuring into the humor of the occasion, while the women are more fully realized characters.  Unlike men, social standing is attained only through marriage, where there’s an unwritten, underlying desire to marry these women off to the best possible suitor, where prospective men are often judged like livestock at a county fair.  In this manner, the bloom of their youth is easily the most impressive aspect of the film, where they are expected to lose themselves to the wonders of nature, where their intelligence and charm couldn’t be more appealing.  However, the film doesn’t really get going until Marianne comes of age.  Her introduction, however, is on the amusing side, as we see her playing a depressing song on the piano soon after the death of her father, where Elinor asks her to kindly play something a little less depressing, so she breaks into an even more depressing dirge, a wonderful way to establish character without uttering a single word.  At the urging of a distant cousin, Lady Dashwood moves her family to Barton Cottage in Devonshire, where the quaint home lacks many of the conveniences, much fewer servants, but they are welcomed by Sir John Middleton (Robert Hardy), almost always seen accompanied by a brood of hounds, and introduced into society by his loquacious mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs), a women abounding in rumor and local gossip, whose social currency is hearsay, having the privilege of spreading it often and with great pleasure, as if this is her greatest joy, constantly making public innuendos about the available Dashwood women, which is seen as much as an act of friendship as a constant irritant throughout.  Into their lives walks Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), a friend and comrade of Sir John during the British military escapade into India, arriving by horseback as Marianne can be heard singing at the piano, where he’s immediately smitten by her.  Marianne, however, is not at all pleased, despite the matchmaking intervention by Mrs. Jennings, as he’s more than twice her age, an honorable man of wealth and reputation where the formality of his noble conduct appears overly rigid.  It doesn’t stop him from bringing flowers, however, where his perfect diction and pronunciation is legendary, initially used as comic relief, appearing and disappearing from the frame, often at full gallop, always excusing himself from her presence, as it’s clear he hasn’t her full attention.  When Marianne and Margaret go running through the hillside in one of the more wondrous outdoor scenes, they get caught in a downpour of rain where Marianne slips and turns her ankle.  Who should arrive, cutting a dashing figure on his white horse, like some kind of apparition, but the debonair John Willoughby (Greg Wise, who was having an affair with Thompson during the shooting and eventually married), a neighbor who sees the accident and carries her in his arms back to the safety of her home.  Marianne’s rush of elation can’t be contained, where despite Colonel Brandon’s best efforts, they are all for naught, as she only has eyes for Willoughby.

The ensuing romance takes place in public view, where neither hides their enthusiasm at seeing one another, where they laugh and giggle with delight in each other’s company, distraught during temporary absences, literally pining away the lost moments until the exuberance returns when they can be together again, sharing common interests in poetry, music, art, and love.  Austen highlights the erotic aspect of Marianne and Willoughby’s relationship, which contrasts strongly with Elinor and Edward’s reserved relationship, where Elinor warns her sister about flaunting their affair so openly.  Marianne, however, insists that’s the beauty of love, surrendering to it in all its glory, continually feeling overwhelmed by the indescribable joy and passion it brings.  Her euphoria reaches a peak at the moment she believes a proposal is coming, but instead Willoughby’s family is sending him off to London on business, expected to be gone indefinitely.  Unprepared for the about face, Marianne is completely distraught, retreating to her room in tears where she remains inconsolable and the entire household may as well be in a state of mourning.  Even Edward pays a visit, but appears nervously standoffish, uncomfortably ill at ease, exiting almost as soon as he arrives, leaving Elinor to surmise the visit was one of pity and sense of duty rather than any genuine interest, where she’s forced to submerge her feelings once again.  Making matters worse, two of the Middleton relatives arrive on the scene, Charlotte Palmer (Imelda Staunton), an uneducated blabbermouth whose enthusiasm for gossip rivals that of her mother Mrs. Jennings, while her ever dour husband (Hugh Laurie) detests every lame thought coming out of her head, where their picture of marriage is one of utter disaster, and also a cousin Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs), who inadvertently reveals to Elinor in strict confidence that she’s been having a secret four-year engagement to Edward Ferrars, dishing out the lurid details every moment they’re together, talking her ear off revealing personal secrets, where Elinor begins to understand Edward’s reticence during the last visit, but is overwhelmed by the disastrous consequences of a possible future literally pulled out from under her.  With both Dashwood sisters down on their luck, leave it to Mrs. Jennings to revive some of the lost magic, inviting Elinor and Marianne to London where she’ll stir the pot of fate once again.  As Marianne unleashes her hopes at seeing Willoughby once again, Elinor couldn’t be more guarded and reserved, lost in a resigned acceptance of what has transpired.  Despite a flurry of letters from Marianne that go unanswered, the parties meet at an extravagant social ball where Marianne’s unbridled enthusiasm is met with a cold dismissal, leaving her devastated to find Willoughby with another woman.  While the sisters console one another about their lost loves, Elinor finally has someone to share her sense of outright exasperation, though Marianne is shocked to learn that her seemingly levelheaded sister has been as emotionally blindsided and traumatized as she has, but never showed even a hint of despair, impressing her immensely.  Colonel Brandon fills in the salacious details about Willoughby’s fall from grace, forced to marry for money instead of love, while Edward is disinherited after his refusal to break off his engagement with Lucy, believing it is the only honorable thing to do.  Out of gentlemanly respect, Brandon offers Edward a living under the protection of a church parsonage.  Still wallowing in her emotional despair, Marianne is once again caught wandering out in the rain, where it is the older Colonel Brandon who must harrowingly carry her for miles back to safety, falling gravely ill with pneumonia, where she’s literally at death’s door, nursed back to health by a patient and obliging Colonel Brandon, finally gaining his due.  Edward visits as well, revealing Lucy left him for his brother Robert (Richard Lumsden) and his ample inheritance, leaving his heart free to pursue Elinor, who is so taken aback she falls into a state of complete shock, unleashing her long pent-up emotions in a gusher of tears.  Once again, the two sisters are cared for, united in love and marriage, with Willoughby on his white steed looking on enviously from the nearby hillside wondering what could have been.   

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