Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sensational Sense and Sensibility

I try to see Jane Austen flicks whenever I can. Sometimes, this is highly rewarding (Pride & Prejudice, 1995). Sometimes it is deeply depressing (Mansfield Park, 1999). But, Janeite that I am, I willingly pop the DVD into the player time and time again to see new interpretations of some of the greatest work in the Brit Lit canon.

Somehow, Andrew Davies's 2008 mini-series of Sense and Sensibility never came to my attention until earlier this year. Upon its doing so, however, I hurriedly Netflixed it for a luxurious revelry of home viewing. My husband said to count him in (he has a fondness for empire-waisted dresses with coyly flaunting d├ęcolletage), and we began.

Enchanting. Entertaining. Endearing. Exquisite.
Sense-ational. (Oh dear, that is just a terrible pun. I beg your forgiveness and Miss Auten's as well.) Warning: Spoilers ahead. Stop if you have not read the book. Go read the book and meet me back here.

It is easier to enjoy a film adaptation of a book you merely like, rather than one you love. I'm far more indulgent and willing to be pleased by an open-handed interpretation of one of my less-favorite Austen offerings. Sense and Sensibility falls into this category, so I was able to relax and take in every detail with a readier spirit than, say, the mediocre 2005 P&P movie or the wretched 1999 Mansfield Park aberration.

The mini-series begins with a most un-Austen-ish sex scene. Yes. Sex scene. It is a relatively mild scenario between an unnamed man and woman, but I could see a gleam in my husband's eye that clearly said, "Maybe I ought to start reading Jane Austen novels." Well, he should; but not for the sex scenes, because they are all off stage in Miss Austen's comedies of manners.

Rather than get all miss-ish and piqued, I went with it. I already trusted Mr. Davies for his unparalleled adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995, so I was more than willing to see what he was up to with S&S. And what he did was proceed to offer a beautiful contribution to Austen filmography -- gorgeous cinematography, a fast-paced and well-balanced script, faithful yet flexible interpretation, and superb casting. Casting was the key. The 1995 Ang Lee version of S&S was, unfortunately, unconvincingly cast.

In Sense and Sensibility (1995), Emma Thompson in no way looked a convincing 19-year-old Elinor. Kate Winslet, though appropriately young, was too hard-featured to play soft, yielding Marianne. Hugh Grant was too foppish for Edward -- could he have played Willoughby? -- nah. Alan Rickman was just too old and creepy looking to play Colonel Brandon. You could not blame Marianne one bit for repulsing his courtship, nor help but feel sorry for her when she accepts his hand at the end. Greg Wise, as the wicked Willoughby, was the best cast part, in my opinion.

But, in Andrew Davies's film, the cast looked the part. Elinor (Hattie Morahan) was young and fresh, yet she still came across as steady and reliable. Marianne (Charity Wakefield) looked innocent and girlish and impulsive. Edward (Dan Stevens) was still too good looking, but he looked so virile and tormented, I was appeased. Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) was perfect -- he looked like a man of the world, but still romantic enough to capture the elusive Marianne at last. And Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer) was so beautiful a widow, it was easy to see where her lovely daughters got their own good looks -- plus, she struck the right balance between pleasingly maternal and frustratingly impractical. Willoughby (Dominic Cooper) was the least satisfying. He never quite captured that glib, high-spirited sexiness that seems so elemental to Marianne's enrapturement. Cooper's Willoughby seemed more brooding and intense -- as maybe, in the role of a Romantic seducer, he was intended to be.

Casting helps greatly. Setting helps, too. The cottage to where the Dashwoods are banished by straitened means looks the part: musty and old and cramped. The family tableaux of both the Ferrars and the Middletons were startling and funny. The costuming was convincing. And every shot of the British landscape was a treat for the eyes. Mr. Davies knew what he was about.

So, here's the thing: As I have been reading others' reviews of this version of S&S, I see many fans of the book outraged or miffed by this or that liberty with dialogue or characterization or plotting. I am wholly in sympathy with those reviewers, because I have been there with my own reviews of interpretations of her other works. As I have only read the book twice, I simply do not know S&S well enough to be so finicky. This version jibes with my own recollection of the characters and the general vision and scope of the novel. And that's enough for me. Here is a note of no little worth as well: My husband, who has never read the book, nor seen the 1995 adaptation, was captivated from beginning to end of the three-part series. I think that says a lot.

I highly recommend this excellent version of Miss Auten's first published work; and, as always, I welcome your comments -- agreeing or disagreeing.