December 13, 1995 | "Farce," wrote critic-essayist Stefan Kanfer, "is tragedy out for a good time. Its characters miss catastrophe by a pulse beat. What if the husband had peeked behind the door? What if the policeman had knocked a minute earlier?"
Or what if you're one of two well-bred sisters on the verge of genteel poverty in early 19th-century England -- and some dashing young man of independent means doesn't ask for your hand? What if the great love of your life is too shy to speak, and you're too repressed to encourage him? Or, perhaps worst of all, what if you're so dazzled by the very embodiment of your romantic fantasies that you don't see a drabber but truer Mr. Right who's standing patiently in the grander fellow's shadow?
Jane Austen imagined all of this and more in Sense and Sensibility, her witty and perceptive comedy of manners about a time when marrying well was considered a matter of survival, not a caprice of gold-digging. Her book, first published in 1811, imagines many different ways in which people can cheat themselves, or be cheated, out of happiness. And in the end, when she gracefully reverses fortunes and upends expectations just enough to bring about the right endings for the right people, you cannot help but leaven your laughter with a long sigh of relief, because the author has made it very clear that, all things considered, things need not have turned out so well.
It is very much to the credit of the people who have turned Sense and Sensibility into a movie that their adaptation elicits exactly the same mixture of bemusement and gratitude. For the better part of 135 minutes, the filmmakers are so adept at making us laugh and making us care, are so skillful at taking us into the hearts and minds of their impeccably cast and vividly drawn characters, it is genuinely painful to consider even the possibility that, maybe, there won’t be any happily-ever-aftering. Not to worry, though: By the time all the just desserts are dished out, almost everybody involved gets what he or she deserves, despite their best efforts to make total messes of their lives.
Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay adaptation for Sense and Sensibility, and plays the key role of Elinor Dashwood. She is so impressively adroit in both capacities that it is difficult to decide where to begin praising her. In compressing and slightly restructuring Austen's original, Thompson -- whose previous writing experience has been limited to TV sketch comedy -- proves herself to be a translator of admirable fidelity and resourceful imagination. Some of the finest, funniest lines -- "People always live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them!" -- are taken almost verbatim from Austen. But the smoothly cinematic structure, and the captivating rhythms of the piece, owe more to Thompson's own talents as a screenwriter. Thanks in large measure to her transforming magic, Sense and Sensibility may be the least stuffy and most vital period piece to illuminate a movie screen in recent years. This is a deeply affecting and hugely entertaining drama that also happens to be one of the year's most exquisitely witty comedies.
As Elinor, the eldest of three daughters who join their mother (Gemma Jones) in dire circumstances after the death of their father, Thompson gives a performance that anchors the film without overly dominating it. The family estate passes by law to their half-brother, their late father's son by his first marriage, leaving Elinor, Marianne (Kate Winslet) and little Margaret (Emilie Francois) dependent on the largesse of other relatives. Just before the sisters and their mother must move out of the family home, Elinor loses her heart to Edward (Hugh Grant), the relatively well-off brother of their half-brother's imperious wife. Unfortunately, for all his considerable charm and good humor, Edward is too tightly buttoned-down to speak freely of his feelings. And Elinor is much too proper to encourage him. As a result, they never really manage to make their intentions clear before they are separated, and Elinor is left to sublimate her longings into an almost obsessive attentiveness to the needs of others.
In stark contrast, Marianne is unencumbered by timidity and unbound by restraint. So she is unashamedly frank in her appreciation when a dashing young rake named Willoughby (Greg Wise) literally rides up on a charger and sweeps her off her feet. Actually, Willoughby carries her off only because she slips, falls and slightly injures her foot during a rainstorm. And, being a gentleman, the place that he carries her off to is the cottage where the Dashwood women have taken residence. But these mundane details do nothing to diminish the thrill of what Marianne assumes is just the start of a storybook romance. Marianne is so taken with the handsome stranger that she doesn't bother to ask many questions about his background. And she fails to notice that another neighbor, the melancholy Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) is truly, madly and deeply in love with her.
There is a more to the plot, not to mention a few subplots, and several other characters. But the movie never seems so busy or overpopulated that it becomes a chore to keep track of who is doing what and why. Credit the vivid performances of the superb ensemble cast with keeping all the characters distinct and three-dimensional. Credit the wonderful screenplay, too. And, while you're at it, credit the smooth and sensitive direction of Ang Lee, the Taiwanese-born filmmaker whose previous works -- The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Women -- revealed many of the talents that he brings to bear on this different yet similar material. Lee has a sharp eye for revealing character detail, and a keen insight into complexities of relationships between parents and children, friends and lovers. Much like the tradition-bound older folks in Lee's Taiwanese films, Elinor is forced to rethink her assumptions in order to find happiness. And much like the vaguely rebellious younger characters in Lee's previous films, Marianne is able to fulfill her romantic dreams only after she recognizes the value of certain old-fashioned, time-tested standards.
There really isn't a bad performance to be found anywhere in Sense and Sensibility. You could randomly toss a dart at the cast list, and be reasonably certain of hitting someone worth singling out for praise. Of particular note: Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs as the zestfully blunt-spoken cousins who offer a home to the Dashwood women; Imogen Stubbs as the not-so-innocent beauty who also sets her cap for Edward; Imelda Staunton as a Charlotte, a vivacious gossip who is a member by marriage of the extended Dashwood family; and Hugh Laurie as Mr. Palmer, Charlotte's brittle husband, a man whose withering sarcasm is a very effective disguise for what turns out to be a big-hearted decency.
Thompson is radiant in her romantic longing, formidable in her piercing intelligence, and endearing in her ever-so-proper exchanges with Hugh Grant. Those exchanges, it should be noted, often have the feel of choice scenes from Noel Coward (Private Lives, in particular) as Edward and Elinor do their best to talk about anything but what is really on their minds. Kate Winslet is all one could ask of a free-spirited romantic whose disillusionment isn't too disillusioning. And Alan Rickman offers a performance of meticulous subtlety and sad-eyed nobility as Colonel Brandon, a man who has lived through more than his fair share of tragedy, and is long overdue for a good time. That he finally gets what he wants is just one of the many reasons why Sense and Sensibility is such an immensely satisfying entertainment.