Z To A: Sense and Sensibility (1995)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: After the death of the patriarch, the Dashwood family takes a step down in society and faces hardship as they are four women virtually penniless. Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet), two sisters with different perspectives on life and interests, keep one another in line and support one another through death, hardship and a love and friendship.

– From IMDB Page

I’m finding it difficult to write about Sense and Sensibility. I think a part of me is ashamed to say I like it, mostly because I believe my “liking” would be misunderstood. It’s easy to assume I like this film for the reasons many others do: 1) the romantic prospects of the two sisters, and B) a devotion to Jane Austen. Also, costumes, hearting Alan Rickman and girly stuff.

I see Sensibility from another perspective. I first saw it when I was about eleven or twelve and identified with what was happening, but for years I wasn’t conscious of why. In retrospect I realize that I felt connected to the Dashwood family because they are women without any prospects. Throughout the story they suffer through public and private humiliations, doubt and loss. This is also what held my attention through our family’s 6-VHS edition of Pride and Prejudice (1995). I viewed these narratives in a way that other girls didn’t: these were stories about families getting the shit kicked out of them but somehow surviving.

So the connection is personal. To say the least I saw a few parallels between the Dashwoods and my own family. I still do. The main difference is that my family’s personal histories remain open-ended, whereas the Dashwood women find their place in the world in 2+ hours. And since this is a Jane Austen adaptation… of course this placement is going to be through marriage. That’s where the romance and potential suitors come in.

Thing is, Sensibility proves to be as restrained as it is complex. It departs from its source material to expand characters and events in a way that pays dividends every time I watch it. There is more to it than women “forming attachments” and passively hoping for suitable marriages.

This is why I like the film. However, all of this is owed to Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee. Thompson skillfully adapted Austen, adding character development and dialogue not in included in the book. Lee translated this into something subtle, emotional and full of layers. In thinking about Lee’s subsequent literary adaptations, Brokeback Mountain (based on a short story by Annie Proulx) and Lust, Caution (based on a novella by Eileen Wang), it’s clear he has a knack for this kind of thing. When I finally got around to picking up a copy of Austen’s book I found the narrative very slight and the characters unformed, almost incomplete in comparison. In short, I was stunned- almost everything I liked about the story had been due to Thompson, Lee and the performances in the film, not Austen.

I also credit Sensibility as a film of firsts. It was the first film I saw Alan Rickman in, and I immediately singled out his voice. I asked my mother, “Why does he talk like that?” but I don’t remember her answer. It was also the first film I saw featuring Hugh Laurie and (strangely) Tom Wilkinson, whose role in the film is so brief people don’t even associate him with it.

But my biggest discovery was Kate Winslet. I had never seen her in anything before Sensibility and the impression she made on me was unlike any actress I’ve seen before or since. She seemed more alive than anyone I had seen onscreen, like there was lightning coursing through her veins. For a twelve-year-old girl, that’s a pretty deep impression. It’s possible that I didn’t notice what acting was until I saw this film, and upon re-watching it I’m still in awe of how uninhibited and skilled she was.

The next thing I saw Winslet in was Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) and I was completely done for. I’ve always been interested in her work as well as her insane work ethic, which is detailed in Thompson’s production diaries for this film (seriously, it’s an intriguing read).

In fact, I’ve followed many of the players in Sensibility since seeing it. I was amused when several of them turned up in the Harry Potter universe, for one thing. I’ve also followed Ang Lee’s varied career. But in the end I return to this film more than their other works combined. I suppose it’s an origin for some things, as well as a comfort. It’s a movie I saw as a kid, and perhaps whenever I return to it I’m allowed to be twelve again, watching these women struggle to get somewhere. I empathize and hope for them every time.

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