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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility (review)

A Darker Sense

Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility — for which star Emma Thompson won an Oscar for her screenplay — is so wonderful that I dreaded to see this new BBC miniseries version, because how could anyone top Lee? (And especially after others of PBS Masterpiece’s Austen marathon were less than satisfying.) But this much-longer version — 40 minutes longer than Lee’s — is just as delicious, giving more play to some of the darker aspects of Austen’s novel and giving the characters more room to grown into themselves, without negating Lee’s film at all. You can love the Lee and love this one, from director John Alexander and legendary screenwriter Andrew Davies (who also adapted the classic 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice), at the same time.
Davies and Alexander made the right choice in going with an opening that’s downright shocking for the Austen world: a sexy (though not at all graphic) scene of the cad Willoughby’s scandalous seduction of a certain young woman, an event Austen demurely chose not to dramatize, though one the ramifications of which reverberate throughout the story. Not that Austen has been sexed-up or anything, just that there is no shying from what Austen was always really talking about: sex as a weapon and (female) virginity as a commodity, and so that grim practicality hangs over everything to come as the young Miss Dashwoods navigate the shoals of romantic intrigue in the wake of their impoverishment after the death of their father. That death dramatized too, here, making it an even more potent reminder of how at the mercy of men women were in Austen’s time.

An appropriately gloomier spirit comes through the terrific cast, too. Charity Wakefield as the impulsively passionate Marianne Dashwood seems more on the edge of actual insanity after her relationship with the dastardly Willoughby (Dominic Cooper: The History Boys) falls apart. Hattie Morahan (The Bank Job) as her more practical sister Elinor seems more resigned to what she believes is her lonely fate. (The always endlessly magnificent Janet McTeer [As You Like It] plays their mother.) Which isn’t to suggest, either, that this is a relentlessly bleak take on Austen, for the “good guys” come across as even, well, gooder: it’s great to see the fantastic David Morrissey (The Other Boleyn Girl), who tends to play much more villianous characters, here as Colonel Brandon, who might be the nicest man in all of literature; and Dan Stevens (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) as Edward Ferrars brings a new charm to a character who can sometimes seem a bit of a prig.

As if all this weren’t enough, the two-disc set also includes an entire extra movie: the biopic Miss Austen Regrets, which also aired during PBS’s Austen marathon, in which Olivia Williams (Valiant) stars as the writer in the story of the last years of her life, based on her own letters. It’s not quite a flip side to the similar Becoming Jane but a complementary piece, exploring how the writer’s own approach to men, love, and marriage inspired her fantasy and guided her toward a life of female independence almost shocking in her day.

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MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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